By Bart H. Meijer
AMSTERDAM (Reuters) -Lockdown measures in the Netherlands will be eased from next week as pressure to reopen society mounts despite high coronavirus infection rates, Prime Minister Mark Rutte said on Tuesday.
A nationwide night-time curfew that has been in place for three months will be lifted on April 28, while bars and restaurants will be allowed to serve small groups on outdoor terraces between noon and 6 P.M.
Universities and colleges will gradually reopen and stores will be allowed to admit more customers.
"It won't happen without taking risks, but the risks must be responsible. That is and will remain a balancing act for now," Rutte told a news conference. "We have to be very careful and cautious."
The Netherlands has been in varying stages of lockdown for more than six months. All bars and restaurants have been closed since mid-October and public gatherings of more than two people are banned.
Despite these measures, coronavirus infections and the number of COVID-19 patients in hospital wards and intensive care units have climbed to their highest levels since January in recent weeks.
Infections increased by 5% in the week through Tuesday to almost 54,000, health authorities said.
Only last week Rutte cited rising COVID-19 infection rates and hospitals working at near capacity as reasons to extend pandemic measures until at least April 28.
But the national hospital association on Monday indicated that the worst of the third wave of infections might be over as the number of new patients admitted fell slightly in the past week and coronavirus vaccinations among the elderly are gathering pace.
Use of Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine will be resumed in the Netherlands from Wednesday, Health Minister Hugo De Jonge said, after Europe's drug regulator said it backed the overall benefits of the vaccine against any risks.
As of Tuesday, 4.5 million vaccinations are estimated to have been given in the country of 17 million, with around 750,000 more injections expected this week.
Opinion polls have shown support for lockdown measures is waning and hospitality associations and mayors from major cities have argued that the ban on outdoor dining spaces should be removed, citing large numbers of people gathering in parks.
Since the start of the pandemic more than 1.4 million coronavirus infections have been confirmed in the Netherlands, with more than 20,000 deaths.
(Reporting by Bart Meijer and Stephanie van den Berg; Editing by Janet Lawrence)