Germany handled the first wave of coronavirus so well that many people doubt the disease’s severity or even its existence, making the second wave worse, health officials believe.
The head of the Robert Koch Institute, Lothar Wielar, who is leading the country’s pandemic response, said Germany’s success in halting the infection rate in March and April had led to a “prevention paradox”.
He said many people were failing to take social distancing or quarantine seriously.
“Other countries, like Belgium or France, have managed to get numbers down, and the reason is people’s behaviour, how well they comply,” Dr Wielar said.
“I am sure that as more cases occur, as people see it among their acquaintances, and more people see how it is a serious illness that they don’t want to catch, one with long-term consequences, then I think compliance will improve.”
The health official’s remarks come a day after Germany recorded its highest daily death toll, with 487 new fatalities.
On Thursday, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases increased by 22,046 to 1,106,789, RKI data showed, while the reported death toll rose by 479 to 17,602.
While the infection rate had stabilised, Dr Wielar said it was still stubbornly high.
“They are on a plateau, but they are not yet falling noticeably,” he said.
“We can see that the health authorities are increasingly exhausted. For example, they are no longer able to find out where the people affected are infected. We are seeing more and more outbreaks in old people’s homes and nursing homes.
He added: “It is becoming increasingly difficult to keep the virus out of these institutions and to protect the people there. We see that in some regions, even hospitals are reaching their limits.”
The leader of German state of Saxony, Michael Kretschmer, called for a hard lockdown if cases didn’t fall in two weeks.
"Everyone has to wake up now," he said. "We won't get through the winter like this."
Meanwhile, Italy has banned travel between regions over Christmas to stop the spread of coronavirus.
The rules, which come into force on December 21 and remain until January 6, prevent families from travelling outside their home region except for emergencies or providing care.
On Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day the rules will be tightened to prevent travel between different cities.
Italians will also be banned from attending midnight mass on Christmas Eve and services must end by 8.30pm.
Italy has been reporting more daily Covid-19 deaths than any other European nation in recent weeks.
The country saw 684 coronavirus-related deaths on Wednesday, down from 785 on Tuesday, and 20,709 new infections, according to the latest data.
While the increase in new cases and hospital admissions is slowing, the government is worried gatherings over Christmas could lead to a resurgence.
Italian Junior Health Minister Sandra Zampa said people should not invite non-family members over for Christmas lunch.
"From December 20, people will only be able to travel outside their own region for emergencies such as to care for a single parent," she told broadcaster La7.
The government has already said ski resorts will be closed over the Christmas and New Year period.
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte had called for a Europe-wide ban on skiing over Christmas to prevent “imported cases” but Alpine nations Switzerland and Austria did not agree.
Switzerland said on Thursday it would not bow to the demands of Italy, France and Germany, which have largely closed their ski resorts.
“Switzerland does not react to pressure from other countries," Swiss Health Minister Alain Berset said.
However, he acknowledged public opinion could swing against Switzerland should people see it as profiting from the prudence of other countries.
"There is no pressure on us, but there may be difficulty for Switzerland's reputation if there are sudden outbreaks all over Europe and others would say it is coming from Switzerland," he said.
"Then it does not matter if it is true or false. It is very unpleasant for us.”