The first coronavirus vaccine doses could be available in Germany before Christmas, Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Thursday.

Speaking at the parliament on her government’s plan to combat COVID-19, Merkel expressed hope that development of vaccines could ease the strain on the country’s health system, and allow them to relax virus-related restrictions in near future.

“We hope that the authorizations for the vaccines can be granted relatively quickly. It will not solve the problem immediately, but it means there is light at the end of the tunnel,” she said.

Merkel said the first vaccinations in Germany could start as early as next month, but a comprehensive coronavirus vaccination program will likely to begin early next year.

“It is possible that first vaccine doses could reach us before Christmas. We have agreed that the healthcare workers, caregivers should be the first to receive them,” she said.

“Given the risk these people take, that’s the right thing to do,” she added.

Merkel’s coalition government decided on Wednesday to extend “partial lockdown” measures until Dec. 20, amid continued increase in new cases.

The Robert Koch Institute (RKI) reported 22,268 new coronavirus infections on Thursday, which was above the seven-day average of 18,200 cases.

Local health authorities reported 389 more fatalities due to the virus, bringing the country’s official toll to 15,160.

As of Thursday, 3,826 coronavirus patients were receiving treatment in intensive care units (ICUs) and 60 % of them were on mechanical ventilators.

Germany has the fifth-highest tally of coronavirus infections in Europe, behind France, Spain, the UK, and Italy.

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