The leaders of Germany's 16 states, Chancellor Olaf Scholz and government officials on Wednesday announced plans to end most coronavirus restrictions by late March.
What did German leaders say about the plan?
The plan would see most measures gradually lifted over three stages. The meeting came after Health Minister Karl Lauterbach announced that the omicron wave of infections has already peaked, and daily infections are beginning to fall.
At a press conference after the meeting, Chancellor Scholz clearly emphasized grounds for optimism but also for caution, reminding citizens "the pandemic not over."
Scholz told reporters, "The jab helps" as he spoke about the fact that fall and winter will follow spring and summer, meaning the concept of a vaccine mandate cannot be taken off the table entirely.
He also emphasized the importance of replenishing stockpiles of masks and other vital tools in the fight against the ever-mutating virus.
The legal basis for Germany's current restrictions is set to expire by March 20, but ministers and state premiers are keen to go step by step, giving them a chance to react should the situation worsen again.
"We shouldn't throw overboard all the measures that have proven to be protective mechanisms over the past months," Hendrik Wüst, state premier for Germany's most populous state North Rhine-Westphalia, told public broadcaster Deutschlandfunk.
Fielding reporters' questions in Berlin, Scholz noted that restrictions laid out in autumn had led to lower infection rates and had been put in place with a view to loosening them this spring.
He repeatedly urged caution and was clear that the steps now being taken may have to be reversed should infection rates spike again. He said the restrictions had been made necessary by low vaccination rates and noted that those who refuse to get vaccinated are not only making decisions that affect themselves but everyone in society.
Throughout the press conference Scholz was adamant about the need to convince vaccine skeptics to get the jab.
What is in the proposal?
The first stage would see the lifting of the limit on the number of vaccinated and recovered people who are allowed to meet.
It would also remove the restriction for non-essential shops that require customers to show proof of vaccination or recovery.
The proposed plan would then lift further restrictions on March 4, including the requirement for vaccinated and recovered people to show a current negative test to access restaurants, bars and hotels — currently, only people with a booster shot do not need to take a test.
Clubs could also open from March 4, although tests even for the vaccinated, but not boostered, would apply.
Finally, on March 20, most remaining limits, including those that target only unvaccinated people, would be lifted.
Requirements for mask-wearing on public transport would likely remain, as would testing in certain areas, but this would require a new law.
Asked about the term "Freedom Day" that some politicians want to use to describe the day when restrictions fall, Scholz said he was not a fan of such phrases as they do not convey the great seriousness of the situation.
Bundesliga and sports capacities
The announcement is also positive news for sports event organizers, including Germany's football Bundesliga, whose clubs will be allowed to fill their stadiums up to 75% capacity (up to a maximum of 25,000) from March 4, before a return to full capacities from March 20.
Germany has been lagging behind other professional football leagues in Europe, such as England's Premier League, where stadiums in many places have already returned to full capacity.
What about the vaccine mandate?
German lawmakers have been discussing the option of introducing compulsory vaccinations against COVID-19 due to the relatively high share of people who still refuse to take the jab.
Various models have been proposed, including a general mandate for all adults, but these are still being considered at the parliamentary level.
The proposal for Wednesday's meeting includes a call to "reaffirm the need to introduce a general vaccination requirement" to decrease the burden on public health systems.
Chancellor Scholz left no room for doubt that he remains supportive of a general vaccine mandate as a key to getting the upper hand on COVID-19. He also said he was confident that German politicians — whom he "is taking at their word" — would pass legislation enabling a vaccine mandate by October.
js,ab/fb, wd (dpa, AFP)