The British variant of coronavirus is set to become the dominant strain in Germany, further adding to the country's woes on top of its slow vaccine roll-out.
Lothar Wieler, head of the Robert Koch Institute which tracks Germany's outbreak, revealed on Friday that the more-infectious variant now makes up around 40 per cent of new cases compared to just six per cent a month ago.
Mr Wieler said the variant will 'soon' become the country's dominant strain, making it 'even more difficult to keep the virus in check' because it is both more infectious and more deadly across all age groups.
When the variant first emerged in Britain late last year it caused case and death tolls to soar, forcing the country into one of the world's strictest lockdowns from which it has yet to emerge.
The British variant of coronavirus will become the dominant strain in Germany 'soon', the country's disease watchdog has warned, making it more difficult to control the virus (pictured, infections in Germany which have already begun rising)
The British variant is thought to be more infectious and more deadly (pictured, a graph showing deaths in Germany) raising the prospect that a harsher lockdown will be needed
Italy has blocked a shipment of 250,000 AstraZeneca vaccines bound for Australia from leaving the country using EU export laws - the first time they have been used. The laws were introduced in January in a desperate effort to speed up Europe's vaccine drive
That is about to change, however, with measures to start easing from next week largely thanks to the success of the country's vaccine drive which has seen a third of its population receive at least one dose.
Germany has no reason to block jab shipments, health minister says
Germany has not blocked vaccines from leaving the country because it doesn't need to, the health minister has insisted.
Jens Spahn spoke after it was revealed that Italy had stopped a shipment of 250,000 AstraZeneca vaccines from leaving the country, after Brussels approved the move.
Italy said it was necessary to speed up its own vaccine drive and save lives, with around 300 people dying from Covid each day at the moment.
It marks the first time that EU export controls - rushed through in January amid an an almighty row with AstraZeneca over jab supplies - have been used.
Spahn said on Friday that drug-makers must honour contracts they signed with the EU, but that Germany has not found it necessary to block shipments.
AstraZeneca's vaccine is not manufactured in Germany, though some of its products are bottled there.
Germany will not be able to rely on the same strategy since its vaccine roll-out has been hit by delays and supply issues, with only five per cent of people given at least one dose.
That raises the prospect of harsher lockdown measures being brought in to combat the variant, with no end date on the horizon.
Publicly EU officials continue to insist that all adults will be vaccinated by the end of summer, in line with the UK, but privately some have admitted that it is unlikely that will happen until next year at the earliest.
Angela Merkel has already been forced to extend Germany's current lockdown restrictions - which include the closure of stores, restaurants, bars, sports and leisure facilities - for another three weeks.
But she has also laid out a cautious reopening roadmap after regional leaders - who are in charge of imposing the measures - put her under pressure.
Regions where infection rates are relatively low, though not as low as previously envisioned, will be able to open non-essential stores, museums and other facilities on a limited basis in the coming weeks.
Elementary school pupils have already been allowed to return to classes, while hairdressers were opened on Monday.
'These should be steps toward opening but at the same time steps that do not set us back,' Merkel told reporters in Berlin.
'There are a great many examples in Europe of a dramatic third wave.'
Europe's vaccine drive has emerged as one of the world's slowest, hampered by bureaucracy, red tape, flawed negotiations and supply issues.
The issue has been particularly embarrassing for Germany - Europe's manufacturing powerhouse whose BioNTech firm was one of the first to produce a viable jab.
Meanwhile it has proved a PR coup for Brexit Britain, which has seen its jabs drive surge ahead after using its newfound freedoms to set its own timetable.
Angela Merkel has agreed to a slow reopening of Germany's economy starting in three weeks, but has already warned that the situation could quickly be reversed
'Britain, we envy you,' ran a headline in German newspaper Bild last week.
Red-faced EU officials have been scrambling to speed up the roll-out in recent weeks, and on Thursday resorted to blocking vaccines from leaving the continent for the first time.
Italy, with approval from Brussels, blocked a shipment of 250,000 AstraZeneca jabs from departing to Australia using new export laws.
The rules were rushed through in January amid an almighty row between Eurocrats and AstraZeneca after the firm revealed it would be unable to meet its quota for an initial delivery of jabs, falling short by some 40 per cent.
That prompted furious allegations that Astra had been shipping doses meant for Europe overseas, and led to the new rules being put into force.
It also set off scaremongering around AstraZeneca's jab, with German politicians and even French President Emmanuel Macron telling journalists that it is ineffective in older people - leading a host of European countries to restrict its use.
But they have now been forced to walk back those claims after real-world data showed the jab is slightly more effective than the Pfizer/BioNTech jab.
On Thursday, Germany's independent vaccine regulator made a complete U-turn - saying the jab should be used in all age groups with a 12 week gap between shots, in a full endorsement of Britain's approach.
The decision is 'good news for older people who are waiting for a vaccination,' German Health Minister Jens Spahn said. 'They will get vaccinated faster.'
The UK saw a surge in Covid cases towards the end of last year driven by the new variant which forced the country into one of the world's strictest lockdowns
Virus deaths also surged as the new variant took hold, but have dropped sharply in recent weeks thanks largely to the success of its vaccination campaign
Britain has overseen one of the world's fastest vaccination campaigns which has seen a third of adults given at least one dose of vaccine - with Germany on just five per cent
Germany and France now face a battle to convince their people to take the jab, amid reports that patients are refusing it in favour of Pfizer largely thanks to their own scaremongering.
Spahn, the health minister, said the new recommendations will be swiftly incorporated in Germany's vaccine rules, which the government announced late Wednesday would be overhauled to get vaccine shots to more people sooner.
Restrictive rules and a rush of deliveries have left Germany sitting on a stockpile of more than 2 million AstraZeneca doses even as many who want the vaccine can't get the shots.
France, Belgium and Italy already loosened their age restrictions for the AstraZeneca vaccine earlier this week as European nations scramble to confront a looming third spike in COVID-19 cases.
The World Health Organization's chief for Europe, Dr. Hans Kluge, said Thursday that new infections rose 9% across Europe in the past week, halting six weeks of declines.
Germany is facing a third spike in infections, fueled by the more contagious variant first detected in Britain, Bavarian Gov. Markus Soeder said Thursday.
Five of the counties with the highest rates of infection are in the southern German state, close to the border with the Czech Republic, which currently has one of the worst outbreaks in Europe.
Germany's disease control agency reported 10,580 newly confirmed infections in the past day, taking the overall total to 2.48 million.
The number of COVID-related deaths rose by 264 to 71,504, the Robert Koch Institute said.