Entire Croatian health ministry tests positive for COVID-19

The EURACTIV Network provides you with the latest news on how the country is dealing with the coronavirus health crisis. [Shutterstock]

**This article is continuously updated with the latest developments.

All the officials at the science and education ministry, including Education Minister Blaženka Divjak, were told by epidemiologists on Tuesday (14 July) that they had to self-isolate and take COVID-19 tests after a ministry state secretary had tested positive for the virus, Croatian news agency Hina reported.

While speedy COVID-19 tests had proved to be negative, the officials would have to remain in self-isolation until 22 July as a precautionary measure, Divjak posted on her Facebook profile.

Prime Minister Andrej Plenković will also be tested for the virus because he had met with Divjak yesterday, a  government spokesman confirmed on Tuesday.

This comes after Croatia’s health ministry announced as of Monday (13 July) that protective masks will be obligatory in hospitals, restaurants, bars, shops, public transport and other closed facilities as of 13 July following a daily spike in COVID-19 cases the weekend before.

Meanwhile, Croatia’s Constitutional Court has requested the State Electoral Commission (DIP) to explain within 24 hours its voting ban for persons infected with COVID-19 as part of the oversight of the constitutionality and legality of elections, Court president, Miroslav Separovic, told public media outlet Hina on Wednesday.

The DIP partially amended recommendations concerning the arrival of eligible voters at polling stations for the parliamentary elections set for 5 July in the event they were to have a high body temperature.

As of Friday (17 July), Croatia reported 4,039 confirmed COVID-19 cases, 2,729 recoveries and 120 deaths after a four-day streak without any new cases.

On 28 May, a patient that had recovered experienced more coronavirus symptoms. Epidemiologists submitted the thought-to-be recovered patient to more tests.

Restarting tourism

Interior Minister and head of the National Civil Protection, Davor Bozinovic, advised citizens on Thursday (18 June) not to travel abroad but guaranteed “safe stay in Croatia’s tourist destinations’’.

On Thursday (18 June), Jutarnji list daily reported that the COVID-19 mobile app will be ready for use in July after receiving information from the company APIS, whose experts are developing the app to trace contacts for the Croatian market.

According to unofficial information, the country’s health ministry had already sent a request to Apple and Google to register the application in Croatia.

Previously, on 10 June, Interior Minister Davor Božinović said that Croatia is currently the only EU member state that has a functioning tourism sector.

That was because between 10 and 11 June, 104,782 people had entered Croatia,  49,463 were foreign tourists, which represents a 30% increase compared to the previous day. Most of the tourists came from Slovenia (16,668), followed by tourists from Austria and German (9,488 and 8,239 respectively).

Citizens from Slovenia, Hungary, Austria, Czechia, Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Germany could already enter Croatia under the same conditions that were valid prior to the outbreak of the coronavirus. Nationals of other EU countries will have to show they have a good reason, although an accommodation booking will be sufficient.

To attract tourism further, Interior Minister Davor Božinović introduced a new government’s website entercroatia.mup.hr, available in both Croatian and English, which is meant to facilitate entry into Croatia to foreigners.

The National Croatian Tourist Board (HTZ) has also launched a large promotional campaign for seven European markets called “The Vacation You Deserve Is Closer Than You Think”, which will be presented on the Slovenian, Austrian, German, Hungarian, Czech, Slovak and Polish markets in each of their languages.

Everyday communication is also being conducted with numerous partners (tour operators and travel agencies), as well as tourists themselves at HTZ offices in Europe providing the latest information regarding entry into the country and epidemiological instructions on beaches, at pool sides in hospitality facilities and the like during their stay, HTZ Director Kristjan Stanicic says.

Should the PM self-isolate?

Croatia is currently debating whether Prime Minister Andrej Plenković should self-isolate after being in close contact with Serbian tennis player Novak Đoković, who tested positive for COVID-19 during a tennis tournament in Zadar, Croatia.

This comes just two weeks before the country’s parliamentary elections on 5 July.

With just two more weeks to go before the elections, the ruling HDZ party (EPP) wants their key player, who tested negative for the virus, to remain on the scene.

On top of that, the party is refusing to host the idea of postponing elections due to the epidemiological situation, arguing that the situation is still under control.

Meanwhile, Croatia is experiencing the second-largest spike in COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic. Towards the end of June, the country had daily spikes ranging close to 100, although the majority of which are experiencing very mild symptoms, while a lot of others are asymptomatic, which experts believe means the virus is losing its power.

Still, authorities considered imposing new restrictions, particularly with regard to nightclubs, as Interior Minister and head of the national COVID-19 crisis response team, Davor Bozinovic, pointed to the 350,000 foreign guests currently in Croatia.

Due to this trend, experts now believe the virus is losing its power. At this moment there are no patients on ventilators, while 42 of the active cases are currently being hospitalised due to the lack of satisfactory private space for self-isolation.

However, for the moment, the elections set for 5 July will take place as planned.

Government exit strategy – several phases

To end restrictions, the government adopted a plan on 23 April to end restrictions.

The day phase one started, on 27 April, Interior Minister Davor Božinović said that inspectors have been visiting businesses that were allowed to re-open.

Already on 21 March, Božinović had told a press conference that the government’s biggest challenge was “making people obey restrictions,” adding that “if everyone followed the rules, there would be no need for more drastic measures, but facts point to a different situation.”

On 4 May, the government launched its second phase of relaxing COVID-19 measures and allowed businesses with close client contacts, such as barbers and hairdressers to reopen.

The attendance of funerals had been broadened to include “extended families” without any limits to their number, although they are having to adhere to epidemiological instructions, said Davor Bozinovic, the head of the National Civil Protection on 4 May, adding that the “ban on flower deliveries and musical services” had been lifted.  

When it comes to marriages, ceremonies, the circle of guests was expanded, while the ban on wedding parties remained in force.

As of 11 May, Croatia opened its borders and abolished e-passes, meaning people are now allowed to move freely within the country without the prior approval of the government. Coffee shops have also been allowed to reopen as long as they operate outdoors and follow epidemiological guidelines.

In a letter to Prime Minister Andrej Plenković and other ministers, the country’s teachers’ union demanded that schools should not be reopened on 11 May, and should only reopen once all the necessary preconditions have been met. Croatia has not conducted the necessary analyses or consultations with professionals and social partners, nor has it ensured the more than necessary conditions for schools to operate, the union underscored.

However, from 14 May, public schools, fitness centres and other recreational facilities were allowed to reopen as long as they respected the sanitary guidelines set up by epidemiologists. 

A few days later, cinemas, theatres and concert halls reopened on 18 May but had to apply social distancing measures including keeping 1,5 metres between a limited number of spectators. Besides, pools were also allowed to reopen and ederly care homes visited.

Meanwhile, the Croatian Football Federation’s (HNS) Executive Committee decided to hold semi-final matches for the Croatian Cup competition on 30 May to resume the football season  which was suspended by the pandemic since mid-March.

Read more about the government’s relaxing of measures:

Call to save tourism sector and the economy

Croatia’s tourism council announced on 11 May that it expects that only 30% of last year’s turnover will be achieved in the sector in 2020, which is considered to be one of the bedrocks of the country’s economy.

Previously, Tourism Minister Gari Cappelli said on 27 April that it was necessary for the EU to have a common exit plan for the coronavirus crisis, which would include a common protocol on travel, as well as something he called a “COVID-19 passport.”

Cappelli, who addressed the press after a video conference with EU tourism ministers, said he hopes that before the end of May, agreements could be reached at least at the bilateral level with individual countries to open so-called tourism corridors, adding that a respectable number of countries are interested in such an option.

While Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic told Die Welt in an interview on Monday (18 May) that he hoped this year’s tourist season would still be successful given how well Croatia responded to the crisis, a Croatia Airlines flight, which brought 75 passengers from Germany to Croatia at the beginning of May, became the cause of a new outbreak.

Although most recent data indicates that 12 passengers are thought to have contracted the virus, authorities requested that other passengers self-quarantine in the following days.

The government also focused on the country’s wider economy.

Croatian employers have applied for the government’s rescue package to cover the salaries of 485,000 workers for March, for which the government has paid out a total of HRK1.6 billion. According to the most recent data, this amount has covered 38% of the national economy during that period.

By the end of March, 1.5 million were employed and 145,462 were unemployed, according to the state’s official data. This means that 32% of those employed have used the government’s support in the last month.

On 1 April, Croatian PM Andrej Plenković presented the second economic relief package tailored for entrepreneurs who were struggling during the coronavirus crisis. As part of the package, the government increased the minimum wage from HRK3,250 to HRK4,000, which should benefit more than 400,000 workers.

The government also announced that all additional contributions for workers would be covered if employers promised to keep them employed. This measure is worth HRK8.5 billion.

Croatian lawmakers appealed to the government to help local agricultural producers and vulnerable social groups affected by the coronavirus crisis. Social Democratic Party (SDP) leader Davor Bernardic recalled that his party had drawn up a third package of 10 measures worth HRK1.7 billion (€224 million) to alleviate the consequences of the crisis for more than a million socially vulnerable people.

‘No pressure’ as government gradually enacts measures 

As of 22 March, public transport was shut down, including intercity lines of buses and rails, while shops could stay open until 5 pm from 23 March.

“As of today, all markets are forbidden to work, and tomorrow citizens are prohibited from leaving their place of residence,” Božinović announced on 22 March.

On 8 April, Croatia’s foreign and European affairs ministry called on Croatian citizens temporarily or permanently living and working abroad to postpone all travel to Croatia that is not necessary until further notice ”to minimise exposure and reduce the risk of coronavirus infection,” PM Andrej Plenković said. The prime minister also called on citizens to “show understanding, be patient and keep social distances,” as long as it is needed.

And while the government had already relaxed its ban on keeping farmer’s markets open on 9 April, it then reversed its decision as PM Andrej Plenkovic called the initial decision a ‘misnomer’.

However, since lockdown measures were introduced, Croatia has had a declining infection rate and authorities never considered the system to be under “severe pressure”.

Just before lifting restrictions, Krunoslav Capak, the chief of Croatia’s Public Health Institute (HZJZ) said on 23 April that the “current reproductive number is favourable” as it stood at about 0.8.

The day before (22 April), he said that the rate of new infections had been declining, while Health Minister Vili Beros said the system was “slowly going back to normal.” Yet, according to the head of Zagreb’s Fran Mihaljevic Hospital for Infectious Diseases, Alemka Markotic, “the situation in Croatia is very good” but was still at its peak.

On 14 April, Beroš told a press briefing that “our system is still not under severe pressure,” adding that “the strategy in combating the spread of the virus is working thus we will consider a relaxation of the restrictions in the time ahead.”

A week before, on 7 April, parliament Speaker Gordan Jandroković said Croatia had found a good balance In dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, between protecting public health and fundamental values and freedoms.

However, it appears that retirement homes across the country felt more of the pressure.

For instance, after 49 residents of a nursing home in Split were taken to hospital for additional tests late on the evening of 7 April and employees who came in contact with them had to self-isolate, authorities started to investigate the nursing home for not reporting concerns that some of the residents had been experiencing symptoms.

Meanwhile, Croatian researchers in Zagreb’s Fran Mihaljevic Hospital for Infectious Diseases have managed to develop the coronavirus in laboratory conditions, a breakthrough which is seen as an important step closer to finding a COVID-19 vaccine.


Read more about the economic situation in Croatia:

Croatia handles earthquake damage amid COVID-19 outbreak

The Croatian government is struggling to mitigate the damage caused by a 5.5 Richter-scale earthquake on Sunday (22 March) and simultaneously, protect citizens from the coronavirus outbreak. EURACTIV Croatia reports.

Zagreb earthquake complicated coronavirus response

After Zagreb was hit by a major earthquake on the morning of 22 March, which damaged many buildings, Health Minister Vili Beroš urged people to comply with social distancing measures despite being forced to go outside. “Earthquakes are dangerous but the coronavirus is even more so,” Beroš said, noting that “there was no major damage to health facilities in Zagreb.”

The head of Croatia’s public health institute, Krunoslav Capak, as well as the health minister said that no significant increase in COVID-19 infections had been noted after the 22 March earthquake, which indicates that citizens had been following the rules even during the disaster.

Since many residents of Zagreb fled after the earthquake, the crisis management team imposed a ban travelling from town to town from 24 March and announced stronger measures against those who don’t respect their rules and organise so-called “corona parties.” 

While government members agreed to donate their March pay, the prime minister urged retailers, once again, to not raise prices of products or exploit the two crises for profiteering.

More on the earthquake can be found here:

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