BERLIN: Chancellor Angela Merkel and German state leaders on Wednesday (Mar 3) agreed a phased easing of coronavirus curbs but added an "emergency brake" to let authorities reimpose restrictions if case numbers get out of control.
With elections looming, Merkel and the regional leaders have faced growing pressure to set out plans to restore normal activities after four months of lockdown.
However, daily cases are creeping up again and only around 5 per cent of the population have received a first vaccine shot.
"We are at the threshold of a new phase of the pandemic that we can go into not carelessly but still with justified hope," Merkel told reporters after what she described as "tough negotiations" with the regional chiefs.
In Wednesday's agreement, the leaders agreed to extend the interval between first and second vaccinations where possible to offer shots to as many people as they can.
They also said they expected a decision soon from Germany's standing committee on vaccination on administering the AstraZeneca shot to over 65s, "in order to be able to adjust the vaccination schedule accordingly".
Germany currently only allows the AstraZeneca vaccine to be given to people aged 18 to 64, which has led to a low take-up of available doses, slowing vaccination efforts.
Under Wednesday's five-stage plan, up to five people from two households will be allowed to meet from Mar 8, with children under 14 exempt. Some shops, including bookstores and garden centres, can reopen.
Retailers can reopen provided case numbers are below 50 cases per 100,000 people over seven days in the relevant region. If the incidence rises above 50, "click and meet" restrictions kick in, whereby customers book a slot to go to the store.
If the metric rises above 100 on three consecutive days, the emergency brake will take effect and restrictions revert to those in force before Mar 8.
Later stages will see restaurant terraces open, and museums, theatres and cinemas reopening for people who can present a recent negative test result. Finally, open air events with up 50 people will be allowed, and contact sport inside.
FREE QUICK TESTS
From Mar 8, the government will pay for all asymptomatic citizens to have a quick coronavirus test at least once a week. Merkel and the state leaders will discuss further steps on Mar 22.
Widely praised last year for relative success in containing the first wave of the coronavirus, Merkel has seen support for her Christian Democrats fall to 34 per cent, its lowest in a year, according to a Forsa opinion poll conducted for RTL/ntv television.
Two regional elections are due this month and a national election in September, when Merkel is due to step down.
Health Minister Jens Spahn said the vaccine campaign should be sped up within days, assuming approval is granted for over-65s to get the AstraZeneca-Oxford shot. Evidence is mounting of its efficacy from Britain, where more than 30 per cent have already received their first shot.
"It was a difficult year for us all, and I understand that after four, five months of lockdown ... everybody has high expectations," he told German television.
Bavaria's state premier Markus Soeder called for "caution, trust and responsibility."
"We have to be very careful that we don't end up in the next lockdown without thinking," Soeder said.