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By Brenna Hughes Neghaiwi
ZURICH (Reuters) -Austria will begin easing COVID-19 related restrictions next week, Chancellor Karl Nehammer told a news conference on Saturday, allowing shops and restaurants to remain open longer and easing restriction on the unvaccinated.
The moves come as the Omicron variant leads to reduced hospitalisations despite high infection numbers.
From Feb. 5, Austria will extend the maximum permitted opening hours of restaurants and shops until midnight and will increase the number of people able to participate in events to 50 from 25, Nehammer said.
"The good thing in spite of everything in this difficult situation - the hospital numbers are at a good level, the intensive care beds, I think it's fair to say, are at a very good level," Nehammer told a press conference in Vienna.
"We are now in a position to raise new prospects that will allow people a breather."
New daily coronavirus infections have been rising in Austria, driven by the extremely contagious Omicron variant, with nearly 35,000 new cases reported on Saturday.
However, pressure on hospitals has eased, as Omicron leads to less severe outcomes, and the current Omicron wave is expected to reach a peak around Feb. 7-9, Director General for Public Health Katharina Reich told the same press conference.
In a further step, from Feb. 12, Austria will eliminate so-called "2G rules" barring those who are not vaccinated against or recovered from the virus from entering non-essential shops.
Since Nov. 15 those not fully vaccinated have been under lockdown, meaning they are only allowed to leave their homes for a limited number of reasons such as shopping for essentials or working. The measure, which was suspended over Christmas, has been criticised as very difficult to enforce.
Austria last week set Jan. 31 as the date to end a fuller lockdown for the unvaccinated, removing restrictions on their movement.
However, they remain barred from taking part in a range of leisure activities, including eating in restaurants or shopping for non-essential items, as part of government efforts to increase the vaccination rate, which is among the lowest in western Europe.
Now, alongside entering shops from Feb. 12, Austria will also ease measures barring the unvaccinated from restaurants from Feb. 19, Nehammer said, saying those with a negative COVID test result will be able to visit restaurants and tourist attractions.
(Reporting by Brenna Hughes Neghaiwi; Editing by Jason Neely and David Holmes)