Lockdown extension looms in Germany as COVID case numbers rise

The small town Gangelt, one of Germany's first coronavirus disease (COVID-19) hotspots, after one year living in a pandemic

BERLIN (Reuters) - German health minister Jens Spahn on Friday dampened hopes that further coronavirus restrictions will be lifted soon, saying rising infections could mean that curbs to slow the spread of the virus may have to be re-imposed.

"The rising case numbers may mean that we cannot take further opening steps in the weeks to come. On the contrary, we may even have to take steps backwards," Spahn told a weekly news conference.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is due to meet with leaders of Germany's 16 federal states on Monday to discuss whether to extend a lockdown that has been in place since mid-December.

Earlier this month, the group had laid out plans for a gradual re-opening of the economy, and many shops have since been opened for appointment-only shopping.

But coronavirus infections numbers have been on the rise in recent weeks. The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Germany increased by 17,482 to 2,629,750, data from the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases showed on Friday. The reported death toll rose by 226 to 74,358.

The number of infections per 100,000 people over seven days rose to 96, up from 72 a week ago and from 65 on March 4, when Merkel and the state premiers laid out their re-opening plan.

Lars Schaade, vice-president of the Robert Koch Institute for infectious diseases, on Friday urged people not to travel over the Easter holiday period as case numbers were rising exponentially.

There was a risk that Germany could be in a similar situation by Easter as it was in at Christmas, he said.

The 7-day incidence reached a high near 200 in late December, soon after Germany went from a "lockdown lite" that started in early November, during which schools and stores were open, to a full shutdown.

The incidence rate decreased following the shutdown but is back at 96 coronavirus cases per 100,000 people, according to RKI data.

(Reporting by Caroline Copley; Writing by Maria Sheahan; Editing by Kirsti Knolle)