Germany on Wednesday extended its coronavirus lockdown until March 7 due to concerns over highly contagious variants of the virus.

Chancellor Angela Merkel made the announcement after a meeting with the premiers of the 16 federal states via videoconference.

Merkel said the strict lockdown measures have been effective and reduced the number of new infections in recent weeks, but she warned that the new mutations detected in Germany remained a source of great concern.

“We know that this mutation is a reality and it will increase [the number of cases]. The question is, how quickly this will increase,” she remarked.

Merkel said it was necessary to extend the measures to prevent an exponential growth in coronavirus infections, and a more dangerous third wave of the pandemic.

Germany’s Robert Koch Institute confirmed earlier that the UK, South Africa and Brazil variants of the virus, which have a large number of mutations, were also detected in the country. The institute warned that the UK variant is more contagious than its predecessors, and causes more serious illness.

According to the decisions taken during Merkel’s meeting with the premiers, all non-essential shops will remain closed nationwide until at least March 7. Restaurants and cafes will offer takeaway services only.

Wearing medical masks will still be mandatory on public transport and stores. All companies will be required to ask employees who can work from home to do so, unless this is impossible.

During their meeting, Merkel and the premiers also agreed on a plan for a careful and gradual relaxation of the measures beginning from early next month.

In states with low infection rates, schools and daycares will reopen but with strict hygiene and physical distancing rules.

Hair salons will be allowed to reopen on March 1, provided that they would strictly follow hygiene and safety protocols.

Merkel and the premiers set the goal of reducing infections to maximum 35 cases per 100,000 people in a seven-day period for easing restrictions in the federal states.

Germany currently has the fifth-highest tally of coronavirus infections in western Europe, behind the UK, France, Spain, and Italy.

The Robert Koch Institute on Wednesday reported 8,072 new infections and 813 deaths in the country, showing that the number of new infections was decreasing, but the outbreak was still far from being under control.

The national total now stands at over 2.29 million cases with at least 62,969 deaths.

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