Greece to continue Athens lockdown as COVID cases rise

FILE PHOTO: Greek government imposes stricter lockdown measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in Athens

ATHENS (Reuters) - Greece will not be able to lift lockdown restrictions in the wider Athens area next Monday as planned following a sharp increase in coronavirus infections, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said on Wednesday.

Athens metropolitan area, where half of Greece's population lives, has been under strict lockdown restrictions that had been set to expire at the end of the month.

"There has been a steep rise in infections yesterday, particularly in Athens, which pushes back our plan...for a gradually reopening on March 1," Mitsotakis told a cabinet meeting.

Although it has suffered more than 6,000 deaths, Greece has fared better than much of Europe in containing the pandemic and protecting its health service, badly damaged by years of financial crisis.

However, state hospitals have been overwhelmed in recent days with intensive care units operating at more than 80% capacity. There was no specific identifiable cause for the rise.

Health Minister Vassilis Kikilias said later on Wednesday the wider Athens area currently had the heaviest burden, with 90% of intensive care units occupied.

"I ask everyone to be a little more patient," he told a regular briefing.

On Wednesday, authorities reported 1,913 new cases, about half of them in the Attica region around Athens, and 28 deaths, up from around 1,000-1,500 in previous days.

Schools are closed and only essential shops operate in Athens, while night curfews restrict movement.

Authorities extended restrictions to two more areas on Wednesday. Effective on Thursday the areas of Arcadia and Nafplion in Peloponnese will be join Athens in hard lockdown until March 1.

(Reporting by Angeliki Koutantou and Lefteris Papadimas, editing by James Mackenzie and Angus MacSwan)