BERLIN, Nov 26 (Reuters) – Germany readied its air force to transfer COVID-19 patients from overwhelmed hospitals in the south as national case numbers rocketed and a new virus variant in South Africa caused widespread alarm.
Germany posted a dip in the coronavirus infection rate over the summer but cases have risen sharply in recent weeks and daily new infections hit a record above 76,000 on Friday.
On Thursday, Europe's biggest economy crossed the threshold of 100,000 COVID-19-related deaths amid warnings from hospitals mainly in the south and the east that their intensive care units were filling to capacity.
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Acting Health Minister Jens Spahn called for "massive restrictions of contacts", supported by Germany's regions, saying this was the only way to break the fourth wave.
Otherwise, there could be a "complete" reduction, he said, without using the word "lockdown".
"The harder we hit the brake the better," he told a news conference.
Annalena Baerbock, co-chief of the Greens party and Germany's incoming foreign minister, told magazine Spiegel that neither a vaccine mandate for the whole population nor a new German lockdown could be ruled out.
Later on Friday the air force will take seriously ill COVID-19 patients from the southern town of Memmingen to Muenster near Osnabrueck in the north, a security source told Reuters.
This will be the first time the air force has used planes fitted with up to six ICU beds – labelled "flying intensive care units" – to transfer COVID-19 patients within Germany.
The detection of a new COVID-19 variant in South Africa added to concern over rising infection numbers, with Spahn saying the government would declare South Africa a "virus variant area" on Friday.
The decision, which takes effect from Friday night, means airlines will only be allowed to return Germans to Germany from South Africa, Spahn said on Twitter. All will have to quarantine for 14 days.
The head of Germany's public health authority said he was very worried about the new variant but added: "So far, I am not aware that this variant has been identified in Europe or in Germany."
Worries over the impact of the new variant caused financial market jitters. Germany's blue-chip DAX index (.GDAXI) fell as much as 4%, with airline Lufthansa's (LHAG.DE) stock dropping more than 10%.
Lufthansa said it was continuing passenger and cargo flights to and from South Africa for the moment but was monitoring the situation closely.
Much of Germany has already introduced rules to limit access to indoor activities to people who have been vaccinated or have recovered from COVID-19, but critics say the incoming coalition government needs to act quicker to slow the spread of the virus.
Register now for FREE unlimited access to reuters.comRegisterReporting by Sabine Siebold, Andreas Rinke and Paul Carrel; editing by Philippa Fletcher, John Stonestreet, William Maclean