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© Reuters. Shops affected by the COVID-19 lockdown in the western German city of Essen

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BERLIN (Reuters) – German health experts warned on Saturday against any further easing of coronavirus lockdown measures as the number of cases jumped again due to the spread of the more infectious variant first detected in Britain.

“We can only have more relaxation if there are stable or falling case numbers,” Karl Lauterbach, health expert for the Social Democrats, told the Augsburger Allgemeine newspaper, adding this was unlikely anytime soon.

The number of COVID-19 cases have been rising again for the last few weeks as some restrictions have been lifted.

Frustration about the ongoing lockdown and the slow pace of vaccinations has been hurting support for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives, further dented by a face mask procurement scandal involving lawmakers from her party.

Merkel’s Christian Democrats have seen support slip in the states of Baden-Wuerttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate where elections on Sunday will be a crucial gauge of popular feeling before a September federal election.

Protesters are due to gather in Berlin on Saturday to demonstrate against the lockdown.

On Saturday, the number of COVID-19 cases rose by 12,674 and the death toll was up 239, with the number of cases per 100,000 over seven days jumping to 76.1 from 72.4.

Germany’s death toll from the virus stands at 73,301, with a reported 2,558,455 infections.

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 spike above 100 per 100,000 on three consecutive days.

Leaders are due to meet again on March 22 to discuss whether any further relaxation of the rules is possible.

However, the head of Germany’s public health agency warned on Friday that the country is at the start of a third wave of the pandemic.

Stefan Pilsinger, a doctor and member of parliament for the sister party of Merkel’s ruling Christian Democrats, predicted that the spread of the British variant could cause a jump in cases like that seen around Christmas.

“The previous lockdown measures were already insufficient to contain the more dangerous British COVID-19 variant,” he told the newspaper.

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