Six questions about Germany's extended shutdown and reopening plans
Chancellor Angela Merkel and state leaders are banking on the roll-out of rapid and self-administered tests plus vaccines to come out of lockdown. Here's what it means for you.
Germany is extending the shutdown but some things can open. What does this mean?
The current restrictions have been extended until March 28th but some sectors, such as garden centres and flower shops, can reopen earlier than this date. Other parts of public life will also be able to open with measures in place and if numbers stay below certain thresholds.
It's a fairly complicated five-step plan - we've written it up in detail here:
Merkel and state leaders are very aware that patience is growing thin. Public life has been largely shut down since November.
"The German Chancellor and the heads of government of the federal states know how important it is to give citizens and the economy planning perspectives on how and when restrictions can be lifted again so that all our lives can regain normality," read the agreement thrashed out during the latest talks between Merkel and state leaders.
But German authorities are worried about a third wave of Covid-19 infections.
"The proportion of virus variants in infections in Germany is rising rapidly, which means that the number of new infections is now starting to rise again," the agreement said. "The experiences in other countries show how dangerous the different Covid19 variants are.
"They illustrate the need for caution in opening up again."
How is Germany opening up?
Merkel said the loosening of restrictions, tied to strict conditions, was justified because of the imminent ramp-up in vaccinations and the arrival of mass rapid testing.
The hope is that if regions can take small careful steps and monitor the situation carefully, they can avoid a situation that results in the country going back into lockdown - something nobody wants.
The picture is very different across states - currently the 7-day incidence in Germany as a whole stands at around 64.7 cases per 100,000 people. Only Rhineland-Palatinate (48.6) and Schleswig-Holstein (47.7) have incidence rates under 50 as of Thursday March 4th.
Thuringia has the highest 7-day incidence rate by far with 127.5.
The government and states say that "two factors" are significantly changing the outlook: vaccines and the availability of rapid and self-testing.
Merkel said on Wednesday that vaccinating was "the way out of the pandemic".
As of Thursday, just 4.5 million Germans out of a population of more than 83 million had received their first jab, amounting to 5.5 percent of the population.
The government says in the coming weeks all of the most elderly people in Germany will be inoculated against Covid.
"As a result, the number of severe and fatal cases, and thus the burden on the health care system, will be significantly lower in future," said the government and states.
The country is also making large changes to ramp up vaccinations: in a U-turn the AstraZeneca vaccine will now be given out to people over 65, and the two doses of vaccine will be spaced out further to allow for more people to get their first jab.
Doctor's offices will be allowed to start giving people the vaccine from April. Germany is also expected to receive more deliveries of vaccine doses from April onwards.
But the government and states also warned that Covid infections could still rise quickly, with more younger people getting the virus. They also have concerns about 'long Covid' - where people have long-term effects.
Angela Merkel on Wednesday. Photo: DPA
When will rapid tests and DIY tests be available?
Germany's new testing strategy, which aims to ramp up rapid tests and self-administered tests, will begin almost immediately.
All residents in Germany will from March 8th be offered at least one free rapid test a week, which will be carried out by a medical professional. This will take place at test centres or pharmacies.
Merkel said staff at schools and day-care centres, as well as pupils, will also be tested regularly, while at-home test kits will also be available in drug stores and supermarkets to buy.
Authorities will also look at how companies should offer testing to their staff.
What will testing allow people to do?
As part of the opening plan, negative rapid tests will allow people to visit a shop or a beauty salon, or go to a restaurant for a meal.
However, the government has not published detailed guidance yet on what else testing will allow, including when it comes to travel.
How many people can I meet?
The contact restrictions from March 8th allow for two households to meet with up to five people. Children up to the age of 14 are not included in the rule, and couples are considered as one household.
In regions with a 7-day incidence of less than 35 new infections per 100,000 people, a household can meet with two other households with a maximum of 10 people, not including children.
However, the relaxation can be reversed if numbers rise again - in this case a household would only be allowed to meet with one other person, like the rules are up until March 8th.
"In all cases, it contributes significantly to reducing the risk of infection if the number of households with which gatherings take place is kept as constant and as small as possible ("social bubble") or if a self-test is carried out by all participants before the gathering," said the agreement between government and states.
So is travel allowed?
Travel is not banned but, like in the previous months, the government and states are urging people not to travel within Germany or abroad unless it is essential.
We don't know yet what the situation is regarding Easter. Merkel's next meeting with state leaders is scheduled for March 24th so we'll find out more information then.
There is an important change to travel rules: from March 8th anyone coming back from a "virus variant area of concern" must self-isolate for 14 days when arriving back in Germany.
The UK, Brazil, Ireland and Portugal are all classed as areas of virus variant concern. You can find the full list on the Robert Koch Institute website. It is regularly updated and includes other "risk" areas too.
Previously, people had to quarantine for 10 days and could end the quarantine early with a negative test taken at the earliest on the fifth day.
Those returning from "risk areas" have to do a 10-day quarantine can can end it earlier with a negative Covid-19 test.
There are also strict testing obligations.