France, Germany may ease; Tokyo tightens
Authorities in Germany and France are considering easing coronavirus lockdowns as restrictions are tightened or extended in Estonia, Norway, Slovakia and Japan.
France is preparing for a possible easing of restrictions from mid-April as it banks on an acceleration of its vaccination campaign against the pandemic, government spokesman Gabriel Attal said on Wednesday.
"We will still face hard times, it is true, but for the first time in months, the return to more normal living conditions is in sight," Attal told reporters following a meeting of the French cabinet.
"It is neither a distant nor uncertain horizon - it is an horizon that is getting closer and closer. We hope maybe from mid-April, and we are preparing for it," he said.
"The president (Emmanuel Macron) asked us to submit proposals that could allow for a cautious re-opening of the country soon."
France reported 22,857 new confirmed COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, sharply up from 4703 on Monday and up from 19,952 on Sunday, confirming the fresh upward trend of the disease.
Attal said the situation was "worrying" but the increase was "not exponential".
With 3.783 million cases reported since the outbreak of the pandemic a year ago, France has the sixth highest tally in the world.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel met with state premiers on Wednesday to discuss the coronavirus lockdown as calls grow for easing the restrictions that have weighed on businesses and public life since late last year.
Negotiations were in full swing ahead of the online conference, with a draft plan proposing a more lax benchmark for lifting some measures.
According to the proposal, the next round of easing could be tied to a seven-day incidence rate - the number of people infected per 100,000 people during a one-week period - of 100.
If this level is reached, states could consider allowing retailers to reopen with "click and meet" times for shoppers.
Museums and zoos could also welcome back visitors by appointment.
States have already begun sending schoolchildren back to classrooms in recent weeks and hairdressers reopened in Germany on Monday.
Despite the calls for easing, politicians and scientists have warned that more dangerous variants of the coronavirus are spreading in Germany, most notably the B117 strain first identified in the UK.
On Wednesday, the number of infections registered during a 24-hour period stood at 9019, surpassing the number recorded the same day last week by more than 1000, the Robert Koch Institute for disease control said.
Merkel and the premiers are also to discuss the proposed roll-out of mass antigen testing on Wednesday.
The German Health Ministry had recently proposed offering every citizen two free antigen tests per week at chemists and other facilities across the country.
Meanwhile, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has said he is considering extending an ongoing state of emergency for the Tokyo region for about two weeks amid concerns that infections have not slowed enough and are continuing to strain health systems in the region.
Suga had declared a month-long state of emergency in January 7 for Tokyo, Kanagawa, Saitama and Chiba, then extended the measure through to March 7.
"Our anti-infection measures are at a very important phase," Suga told reporters on Wednesday.
"In order to protect the people's lives and health, I think we need to extend (the state of emergency) for about two weeks."
In Norway, authorities said restaurants and gyms in some areas would be closed after pockets of virus outbreaks in the capital Oslo and elsewhere.
The move comes after more cases of the virus mutations have been reported in Norway.
The changes apply as of Wednesday.
Slovakia is tightening restrictive measures in a bid to halt the spread of a highly contagious coronavirus variant first found in the UK.
Starting on Wednesday, Slovakia is imposing a country-wide curfew between 8pm and 1am.
In Slovakia's already tight lockdown, people in counties where the virus situation is considered serious need to take a test every seven days to be able to go to work.
Estonia also imposed new restrictions that kicked in on Wednesday, while health experts warn of rising coronavirus infections.
Indoor events are now banned and leisure, culture and entertainment venues, which have until now been open with limits, have to shut down
Schools largely continue to offer distance learning, except for years one to four.
According to the European health authority ECDC, Estonia currently has the highest infection rate among European countries.
In the country of 1.3 million inhabitants almost 70,000 people have contracted the virus and 615 have died in connection to an infection.
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