(Adds Merkel comments)
By Emma Thomasson
BERLIN, April 1 (Reuters) - Chancellor Angela Merkel appealed to Germans on Thursday to stay at home over Easter and meet fewer people to help curb a third wave of the coronavirus pandemic, as the capital Berlin announced a nighttime ban on gatherings from Friday.
"It should be a quiet Easter, with those closest to you, with very reduced contact. I urge you to refrain from all non-essential travel," Merkel said in a video message, adding this was the only way to help doctors and nurses fight the virus.
Merkel was accused of losing her grip on the COVID-19 crisis last week after she ditched plans for an extended Easter holiday agreed two days earlier with governors of Germany's 16 states.
She has since tried to shift the blame for the third wave of the pandemic onto state premiers, accusing them of failing to stick to earlier agreements to reimpose restrictions if infections rose.
On Thursday, the city government of Berlin said it will impose a nighttime ban on gatherings from Friday and only allow children of essential workers to attend nursery from next week.
As the weather has turned warm in recent days, Berliners have been flocking to public spaces. About a hundred youngsters threw bottles and stones at police in one park on Wednesday when they tried to break up the party, the Berliner Zeitung reported.
Merkel said it was no longer the elderly who were fighting for their lives in the pandemic, but the middle-aged and even younger patients who were ending up on ventilators in hospital.
She held out hope, however, that the sluggish distribution of vaccinations would speed up after Easter, when family doctors will start giving shots.
Christian Karagiannidis, the scientific head of the DIVI association for intensive and emergency medicine, said Germany needs a two-week lockdown, faster vaccinations and compulsory tests at schools if hospitals are not to be overwhelmed.
"If this rate continues, we will reach the regular capacity limit in less than four weeks," he told the Rheinische Post daily. "We are not over-exaggerating. Our warnings are driven by the figures."
The Berlin city government said people would only be allowed to be outside on their own or with one other person from 9 p.m. until 5 a.m., though children under 14 are exempted.
This will be the first limited curfew imposed in Berlin since the pandemic began a year ago. The city of Hamburg already announced on Wednesday it will restrict nighttime outings from Friday, with supermarkets and takeaways shut from 9 p.m.
Unlike Britain and France, Germany's 16 states, which run their own healthcare and security affairs, have been reluctant to impose drastic limits on movement out of fear of further damaging the economy, as well as an aversion to far-reaching restrictions on freedoms in a country wary of its Nazi past.
The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Germany, Europe's most populous country and largest economy, rose 24,300 to 2.833 million on Thursday, the biggest daily increase since Jan. 14. The reported death toll rose by 201 to 76,543. (Reporting by Emma Thomasson, editing by William Maclean and Mark Heinrich)
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