Merkel backs tougher COVID lockdown in Germany

BERLIN (Reuters) -Chancellor Angela Merkel supports demands for a short, tough lockdown in Germany to curb the spread of the coronavirus as infection rates are too high, a German government spokeswoman said on Wednesday.

Germany is struggling to tackle a third wave of the pandemic and several regional leaders have called for a short, sharp lockdown while the country tries to vaccinate more people.

“Every call for a short, uniform lockdown is right,” deputy government spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer told reporters, adding Germany was seeing a growing number of intensive care patients.

“We need a stable incidence below 100,” she said, referring to the number of cases over seven days per 100,000 inhabitants. It is currently 110.1, according to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases.

She also said the government was looking at whether nationwide, rather than regional, measures were needed.

“The range of regulations does not help acceptance,” said Demmer. While some states have imposed night-time curfews over Easter, others are experimenting with some easing of restrictions.

Merkel pressed regional leaders on March 28 to step up efforts to curb rapidly rising coronavirus infections, adding a thinly veiled threat that she would otherwise have to consider what steps could be taken on a nationwide basis.

One option would be to amend the Infection Protection Act to stipulate what should happen under certain scenarios and which could enable the federal government to enforce a nationwide lockdown without getting approval of the 16 state premiers.

Demmer said the government was still looking into this option, but that no final decision had been taken yet.

Bild newspaper reported that conservative lawmakers were currently working on a draft law to give the federal government more powers to get the third wave under control.

The majority of Germany’s federal state premiers was against bringing forward talks scheduled for April 12 on what action to take.

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Germany rose by 9,677 on Wednesday to more than 2.9 million, the Robert Koch Institute said. It has warned that the numbers may not yet show the full picture as not all cases were registered over Easter. Some 77,401 people have died.

(Reporting by Andreas Rinke and Michael Nienaber; Writing Madeline Chambers; Editing by Maria Sheahan, Kirsti Knolle)

G7 countries urge independent probe into alleged rights abuses in Ethiopia’s Tigray

By Foo Yun Chee

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The United States, Germany, France and other G7 countries called on Friday for an independent and transparent investigation into alleged human rights abuses during the conflict in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region.

Ethiopia’s federal army ousted the former regional ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), from the capital Mekelle in November.

Thousands of people died, hundreds of thousands have been forced from their homes and there are shortages of food, water and medicine in the region. The government says most fighting has ceased but there are still isolated incidents of shooting.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said last week Eritrea has agreed to withdraw troops it had sent during the fighting into Ethiopian territory along their mutual border, amid mounting reports of human rights abuses. Eritrea has denied its forces joined the conflict.

The G7 foreign ministers of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell expressed their concerns in a joint statement.

“All parties must exercise utmost restraint, ensure the protection of civilians and respect human rights and international law,” they said.

“It is essential that there is an independent, transparent and impartial investigation into the crimes reported and that those responsible for these human rights abuses are held to account,” the ministers said.

They said the withdrawal of Eritrean forces from Tigray must be swift, unconditional and verifiable and that a political process acceptable to all Ethiopians should be set up that leads to credible elections and a national reconciliation process.

Ethiopia’s foreign ministry said in March it was ready to work with international human rights experts to conduct investigations on allegations of abuses.

(Reporting by Foo Yun Chee; Editing by Peter Graff)

U.S.’s Blinken warned Germany’s Maas about Nord Stream 2 sanctions

By Robin Emmott

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday he had told his German counterpart that sanctions against the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline were a real possibility and there was “no ambiguity” in American opposition to its construction.

Berlin has so far been betting the new U.S. administration of President Joe Biden will take a pragmatic approach to the project to ship Russian gas to Europe because it is almost completed, officials and diplomats have told Reuters.

Reiterating Biden’s concerns about the pipeline from Russia to Germany, Blinken said he told German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on Tuesday in a private meeting that companies involved in the project risked sanctions, particularly at a point when construction might finish.

“I made clear that firms engaged in pipeline construction risk U.S. sanctions. The pipeline divides Europe, it exposes Ukraine and central Europe to Russian manipulation and coercion, it goes against Europe’s own stated energy goals,” Blinken told a news conference.

The Kremlin says Nord Stream 2, a $11 billion venture led by Russian state energy company Gazprom, is a commercial project, but several U.S. administrations have opposed the project and Europe has vowed to reduce its reliance on Russian energy.

The United States and eastern European Union countries such as Poland say Nord Stream 2 is part of Russian economic and political measures to manipulate European countries and undermine transatlantic ties.

“What I said (to Maas) was that we will continue to monitor activity to complete or certify the pipeline and if that activity takes place, we will make a determination on the applicability of sanctions,” Blinken said.

He said it was important to carry the message directly to Maas, “just to make clear our position and to make sure there is no ambiguity.”

Reuters reported on Feb. 24 that 18 companies recently quit work on the pipeline to avoid sanctions.

Asked about a possible compromise in which Germany’s energy grid regulator could be empowered to stop gas flowing if Russia crossed a line, Blinken declined to comment.

Last month, a former German ambassador to the United States floated the idea of a compromise between Washington and Berlin that would have given the completed pipeline a use as political leverage.

Triggers for what the former envoy, Wolfgang Ischinger, called an “emergency brake” might include a flare-up in violence between Ukraine and Russia, which annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in 2014, or if Moscow sought to undermine Kyiv’s existing gas transit infrastructure.

(Reporting by Robin Emmott; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Edmund Blair)

German tourist industry warns of job losses from tighter pandemic lockdowns

(Reuters) – The German tourist industry has warned of layoffs and bankruptcies if authorities further tighten lockdowns meant to curb the spread of the coronavirus including by enforcing quarantine for those returning from holidays abroad.

National and regional leaders meeting on Monday evening to decide the next round of measures to tackle the coronavirus pandemic are mulling requiring quarantine for all returning travelers, not just those who were in high-risk areas.

“From the point of view of the tourism industry, it is unacceptable and absolutely disproportionate to quarantine, irrespective of the incidence rate at the destination,” said Michael Frenzel, president of the BTW tourism association, adding that travelers already have to test for the virus.

Two other tourism industry associations, DRV and BDL, said that further restricting international travel could cost jobs for the sector’s 2,300 tour operators and 10,000 travel agencies.

State aid has so far only compensated for a fraction of the costs the industry has suffered as a result of the pandemic, they said.

Earlier in March, Germany removed regions in Spain, including the tourist island of Mallorca, and Portugal from its list of coronavirus risk areas. The decision pushed tens of thousands of Germans to plan last-minute Easter getaways to Spain’s Balearic islands.

Germany is set to extend a lockdown into its fifth month through April 18, according to a draft proposal, as infection rates exceeded the level at which authorities say hospitals will be overstretched.

(Reporting by Klaus Lauer; writing by Bartosz Dabrowski in Gdansk; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

German COVID-19 cases are growing exponentially again: RKI

BERLIN (Reuters) – Coronavirus infections are rising exponentially in Germany, an expert at the Robert Koch Institute for infectious diseases said on Tuesday, putting at risk plans to lift the lockdown and revive the economy.

The number of cases per 100,000 reported on Tuesday was 83.7, up from 68 a week ago, and the RKI has said that metric could reach 200 by the middle of next month.

Germany is definitely in a third wave of the pandemic, driven by the fact it has loosened restrictions in recent weeks just as a more transmissible variant has spread, Dirk Brockmann, an epidemiologist at the RKI, told Germany’s ARD television.

“It has been totally irrational to loosen up here. It is just fueling this exponential growth,” he said.

Chancellor Angela Merkel and state leaders agreed a phased easing of curbs earlier this month along with an “emergency brake” to let authorities reimpose restrictions if case numbers rise above 100 per 100,000 on three consecutive days.

They are due to meet again on March 22 to discuss whether to allow any further relaxation of the rules.

The state government in the city of Berlin decided on Tuesday to put on hold any more easing, such as allowing restaurants or cinemas to open, the Tagesspiegel newspaper reported.

VACCINATION WOES

Germany’s decision on Monday to suspend AstraZeneca’s vaccine could delay progress in reaching herd immunity and postpone an economic recovery in the second quarter, analysts said.

The decision follows seven cases of thrombosis in Germany, including three deaths, and delivers a major setback to the country’s drive to speed up its sluggish vaccination campaign.

A planned meeting between Merkel and state leaders on Wednesday to discuss using family doctors to administer COVID-19 vaccines has been postponed until after the European Medicines Agency completes its review into the AstraZeneca shot.

AstraZeneca has said an analysis of its safety data covering reported cases from over 17 million vaccine doses given had shown no evidence of an increased risk of pulmonary embolism, deep vein thrombosis or low levels of platelets.

The RKI’s Brockmann noted that 1,000 people in a million had died of COVID-19, compared to possibly 1 in a million from complications associated with the vaccine.

“In the risk groups, the risk of dying of COVID is much, much higher. That means it is probably 100,000 times more likely to die of COVID than because of an AstraZeneca vaccine,” he said.

(Reporting by Emma Thomasson and Caroline Copley, Editing by Timothy Heritage and Gareth Jones)

Germany, Italy, France to halt AstraZeneca shots, further hitting EU vaccination campaign

By Thomas Escritt and Stephanie Nebehay

BERLIN/GENEVA (Reuters) – Germany, France and Italy said on Monday they would stop administering the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine after several countries reported possible serious side-effects, throwing Europe’s already struggling vaccination campaign into disarray.

Denmark and Norway stopped giving the shot last week after reporting isolated cases of bleeding, blood clots and a low platelet count. Iceland and Bulgaria followed suit and Ireland and the Netherlands announced suspensions on Sunday.

The moves by some of Europe’s largest and most populous countries will deepen concerns about the slow rollout of vaccines in the region, which has been plagued by shortages due to problems producing vaccines, including AstraZeneca’s.

Germany warned last week it was facing a third wave of infections, Italy is intensifying lockdowns and hospitals in the Paris region are close to being overloaded.

German Health Minister Jens Spahn said that although the risk of blood clots was low, it could not be ruled out.

“This is a professional decision, not a political one,” Spahn said adding he was following a recommendation of the Paul Ehrlich Institute, Germany’s vaccine regulator.

France said it was suspending the vaccine’s use pending an assessment by the EU medicine regulator due on Tuesday. Italy said its halt was a “precautionary and temporary measure” pending the regulator’s ruling.

Austria and Spain have stopped using particular batches and prosecutors in the northern Italian region of Piedmont earlier seized 393,600 doses following the death of a man hours after he was vaccinated. It was the second region to do so after Sicily, where two people had died shortly after having their shots.

The World Health Organization appealed to countries not to suspend vaccinations against a disease that has caused more than 2.7 million deaths worldwide.

“As of today, there is no evidence that the incidents are caused by the vaccine and it is important that vaccination campaigns continue so that we can save lives and stem severe disease from the virus,” WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier said.

The United Kingdom said it had no concerns, while Poland said it thought the benefits outweighed any risks.

“UNUSUAL” SYMPTOMS

AstraZeneca’s shot was among the first and cheapest to be developed and launched at volume since the coronavirus was first identified in central China at the end of 2019 and is set to be the mainstay of vaccination programs in much of the developing world.

Thailand announced plans on Monday to go ahead with the Anglo-Swedish firm’s shot after suspending its use on Friday but Indonesia said it would wait for the WHO to report.

The WHO said its advisory panel was reviewing reports related to the shot and would release its findings as soon as possible. But it said it was unlikely to change its recommendations, issued last month, for widespread use, including in countries where the South African variant of the virus may reduce its efficacy.

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) has also said there was no indication the events were caused by the vaccination and that the number of reported blood clots was no higher than seen in the general population.

The handful of reported side-effects in Europe have upset vaccination programs already under pressure over slow rollouts and vaccine skepticism in some countries.

The Netherlands said on Monday it had seen 10 cases of possible noteworthy adverse side-effects from the AstraZeneca vaccine, hours after the government put its vaccination program on hold following reports of potential side-effects in other countries.

Denmark reported “highly unusual” symptoms in a 60-year-old citizen who died from a blood clot after receiving the vaccine, the same phrase used on Saturday by Norway about three people under the age of 50 it said were being treated in hospital.

“It was an unusual course of illness around the death that made the Danish Medicines Agency react,” the agency said in a statement late on Sunday.

One of the three health workers hospitalized in Norway after receiving the AstraZeneca shot had died, health authorities said on Monday, but there was no evidence that the vaccine was the cause. They said they would continue their probe and that no more suspected cases had been reported since Saturday.

AstraZeneca said earlier it had conducted a review covering more than 17 million people vaccinated in the European Union and the UK which had shown no evidence of an increased risk of blood clots.

Investigations into potential side-effects are complicated as the history of each case and circumstances surrounding a death or illness are examined. Austrian authorities have said their review of the AstraZeneca batch will take about two weeks.

The EMA has said that as of March 10, a total of 30 cases of blood clotting had been reported among close to 5 million people vaccinated with the AstraZeneca shot in the European Economic Area, which links 30 European countries.

The WHO said that as of March 12, more than 300 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines had been administered around the world with no deaths found to have been caused by any of them.

(Reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat in BANKOK and Andreas Rinke and Paul Carrel in BERLIN, Angelo Amante in ROME, Christian Lowe in PARIS, Toby Sterling in AMSTERDAM, Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen in COPENHAGEN and Stanley Widianto in JAKARTA; writing by Philippa Fletcher; editing by Nick Macfie)

Czech Republic asks other countries for help with COVID-19 patients: health ministry

PRAGUE (Reuters) – The Czech Republic has asked Germany, Switzerland and Poland to take in dozens of COVID-19 patients as the situation in its own hospitals has reached a critical point, Prague’s Health Ministry said on Friday.

The country of 10.7 million has been one of the hardest-hit globally in recent weeks as many regional hospitals, overwhelmed by the inflow of coronavirus patients, had to transfer them elsewhere, in some cases taking them hundreds of miles away.

“The large number of newly infected patients has intensified pressure on the healthcare system, and the number of patients requiring hospitalization is growing,” the ministry said.

As of Friday morning, there were 8,153 COVID patients hospitalized, including 1,735 requiring intensive care, Health Ministry data showed.

“In some regions, the hospitals have exhausted their capacity and they are no longer able to provide appropriate care or to accept new patients without help from others,” Health Minister Jan Blatny said in the release.

Across the country, 13% of the overall intensive care capacity was available, while in the capital Prague, the free capacity was at 5%.

Neighboring Slovakia transferred its first coronavirus patients abroad this week as its hospitals filled with COVID-19 patients.

(Reporting by Robert Muller; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Hugh Lawson)

Philippines offers nurses in exchange for vaccines from Britain, Germany

By Neil Jerome Morales

MANILA (Reuters) – The Philippines will let thousands of its healthcare workers, mostly nurses, take up jobs in Britain and Germany if the two countries agree to donate much-needed coronavirus vaccines, a senior official said on Tuesday.

The Philippines, which has among Asia’s highest number of coronavirus cases, has relaxed a ban on deploying its healthcare workers overseas, but still limits the number of medical professionals leaving the country to 5,000 a year.

Alice Visperas, director of the labor ministry’s international affairs bureau, said the Philippines was open to lifting the cap in exchange for vaccines from Britain and Germany, which it would use to inoculate outbound workers and hundreds of thousands of Filipino repatriates.

Nurses are among the millions of Filipinos who work overseas, providing in excess of $30 billion a year in remittances vital to the country’s economy.

“We are considering the request to lift the deployment cap, subject to agreement,” Visperas told Reuters.

Britain is grappling with the world’s sixth-highest coronavirus death toll and one of the worst economic hits from the pandemic, while Germany has the 10th most infections globally.

While the two countries have inoculated a combined 23 million people, the Philippines has yet to start its campaign to immunize 70 million adults, or two-thirds of its 108 million people. It expects to receive its first batch of vaccines this week, donated by China.

The Philippines wants to secure 148 million doses of vaccines altogether.

The British embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to a request for comment while calls to Germany’s mission went unanswered.

In 2019, almost 17,000 Filipino nurses signed overseas work contracts, government data showed.

While Filipino nurses have fought to lift the deployment ban to escape poor working conditions and low pay at home, the workers-for-vaccine plan has not gone down well with some medical workers.

“We are disgusted on how nurses and healthcare workers are being treated by the government as commodities or export products,” Jocelyn Andamo, secretary general of the Filipino Nurses United, told Reuters.

Merkel tells Rouhani Iran should return to nuclear deal

BERLIN (Reuters) – Iran should send positive signals to increase the chances of a return to the 2015 nuclear deal and defuse a standoff with western powers, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told President Hassan Rouhani in a phone call on Wednesday.

Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert said the German leader told Rouhani she was concerned that Iran was continuing to breach its commitments under the deal, which U.S. President Joe Biden wants to restore should Iran halt nuclear activities.

(Reporting by Joseph Nasr; Editing by Madeline Chambers)

Germany extends lockdown until March 7

By Sabine Siebold and Andreas Rinke

BERLIN (Reuters) – Germany will extend restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus until March 7, though schools and hair salons may open sooner, Chancellor Angela Merkel and leaders of the 16 federal states agreed on Wednesday.

The number of new daily infections in Germany has been falling, prompting some regional leaders to push for a timetable to ease the lockdown, but concerns are growing about the impact of more infectious variants of the virus on case numbers.

“We know that these mutants are a reality now, and with that it (the infection rate) will increase. The question is how quickly it will increase,” Merkel told journalists in a news conference.

Under the agreement, some exceptions will be made to a strict lockdown which has been in place since mid-December.

Hairdressers will be allowed to reopen from March 1 and individual states can decide on how to re-start school classes. Merkel, who has adopted a cautious approach throughout the pandemic, has said nurseries and primary schools take priority.

The rest of the economy can start to re-open gradually where the spread of the virus drops to no more than 35 new cases per 100,000 people over seven days.

On Wednesday, that number was 68, having fallen from a high near 200 in late December. It was last below 50 in October.

BUSINESS ANGST

Some business and industry associations have pushed for an easing of the restrictions as soon as possible, citing the damage inflicted on Europe’s biggest economy, which shrank by 5% last year.

“The situation is serious,” the BDI industry and BDA employers groups said. “We urgently call for an easing plan.”

However, the Ifo economic think-tank said a lockdown extension until mid-March was bearable and that a swifter easing that triggered a surge in cases could create greater damage.

Germany reported 8,072 new cases on Wednesday and a further 813 deaths, bringing the total death toll to 62,969.

(Writing by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Maria Sheahan, Gareth Jones and Cynthia Osterman)