ANGELA Merkel has been forced to extend lockdown by three weeks as Germany is finally set to approve AstraZeneca’s Covid jab for over-65s.
The embarrassing backflip comes after Berlin snubbed the life-saving vaccine – despite real-world results showing it is 94 per cent effective at reducing hospital admissions for coronavirus.
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"The (German) vaccine commission, whose recommendations we are happy to follow, will authorise AstraZeneca for older age groups," Merkel, 66, told reporters on Wednesday.
Scaremongering by European politicians, including French president Emmanuel Macron, has led to a low vaccine uptake in some countries, leaving them lagging well behind the UK.
Yet a new Public Health England study shows the vaccine is saving lives, and is dramatically reducing pressures on UK hospitals.
The U-turn came on the same day that Germany's current lockdown was extended to March 28, after the German Chancellor held a virtual meeting with leaders of Germany's 16 states.
On Thursday, Germany’s seven-day case average rose to 64.7 from 64 on Wednesday.
New infections increased by 11,912 to 2,471,942 and the death toll rose by 359 to 71,240.
Despite extending the lockdown by another three weeks there will be a gradual easing of coronavirus curbs – as fears grow of the bug rampaging through Europe yet again.
Under a five-stage plan agreed late on Wednesday, up to five people from two German households will be allowed to meet from March 8, with children under 14 exempt.
Some shops, including book stores and garden centres, can reopen.
Other retailers can only reopen in regions where case numbers are below 50 cases per 100,000 people over seven days.
If the incidence rises above 50, ‘click and meet’ restrictions kick in, whereby customers book a slot to go to the store.
Merkel told reporters: "These should be steps toward opening but at the same time steps that do not set us back.
"There are a great many examples in Europe of a dramatic third wave."
Her warning comes as data shows some snail-pace European nations will not manage to jab the majority of adults until 2023 if they continue at their current rate.
UK regulators approved the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines much earlier than the equivalent EU body, the European Medicines Agency.
And EU commission chief Ursula von der Leyen took control of ordering doses for the whole bloc, a decision many blame for agonising delays.
More than 20million people in the UK have had at least one dose, and ministers want all adults over 18 to be offered it by July 31.
Like other countries in the European Union, Germany's national vaccine campaign lags far behind that of Israel, the UK and the US.
Germany has so far jabbed only five per cent of its 84million population and in France the figure is a paltry four per cent.
Officials in Germany had previously raised doubts about the effectiveness of the AstraZeneca jab amid reports – rubbished by Oxford – that it was just eight per cent effective at protecting those in older age groups
Some of the Germans first in line for a Covid jab have rejected the AstraZeneca vaccines, leaving the country with hundreds of thousands of unopened doses.
Germany will soon authorise the AstraZeneca/Oxford Covid jab for people over the age of 65, Merkel confirmed on Wednesday, the same day Belgium finally authorised its rollout to seniors.
Thomas Mertens, the head of Germany's vaccine committee, last week told German television station ZDF: "The whole thing has somehow gone wrong."
The about-turn comes as Germans furious at the EU coronavirus vaccine fiasco have vowed to fly to Moscow to get a jab – in a major PR boost for Vladimir Putin.
Reports say state airline Lufthansa is in talks to launch queue-jumping flights for wealthy passengers to get a dose of Russia's Sputnik V.
And last week a photo of a deserted vaccine centre at Brussels airport came to symbolise the jab chaos in the EU.
Panicked European countries are abandoning the EU's failed vaccines scheme amid warnings the continent is facing a third wave and longer lockdowns.
Leaders are jumping ship from the Brussels-led buying programme and scrambling to carve out their own deals with drugs giants.
Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz led the breakaway, slamming the European Medicines Agency for being "too slow" to approve jabs.
Five other countries – Denmark, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic – have also unveiled plans to go it alone.
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