See each other by video call this Christmas, Merkel tells Germans

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FILE PHOTO: German Chancellor Angela Merkel delivers a speech in parliament, in Berlin

BERLIN (Reuters) - Chancellor Angela Merkel urged Germans on Saturday to avoid visiting family members over Christmas and to use video calls instead for greetings, the way service members stationed abroad do, as the country battles COVID-19.

Germany is struggling with a rise in coronavirus infections and deaths. Praise for Merkel for having tamed the first wave has turned to criticism of her perceived failure to tackle the second.

"Women and men stationed far away from home to ensure our security know what it means to have limited contact with loved ones," Merkel said in her weekly video podcast.

"They know what it means to only be able to Skype over a long period of time instead of being together," she said, referring to Microsoft's video calling system.

Germany recorded more than 31,000 new infections and 702 deaths on Saturday, the Robert Koch Institute for infectious diseases said. That was double the number of infections reported on Dec. 15, one day before Germany went into a hard lockdown that is expected to last until at least Jan. 10.

Merkel has been making emotional appeals ahead of Christmas and the New Year, urging Germans to avoid unnecessary travel and to limit social contacts to an absolute mininum as health experts warn of a spike in infections over the holidays.

"What awaits many of us over Christmas is ordinary for people on missions abroad," she said on Saturday, speaking with a Christmas tree in the background.

On Dec. 27, Germany is expected to start rolling out the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Germany's BioNTech and U.S. company Pfizer.

(Reporting by Joseph Nasr; Editing by Frances Kerry)