Czech Republic records highest number of active COVID-19 cases since start of pandemic

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.

With 4,784 active coronavirus cases recorded in the Czech Republic as of Sunday, the country has now reached its highest level since the start of the pandemic.

The Moravia-Silesian region, which is located near the Polish border, has again made facemasks mandatory and banned events with more than 100 participants given that it is now the region’s new epicentre.

This comes after a few Czechs are coming back from their summer holidays with COVID-19 as many of them have decided to spend their holidays abroad and particularly in Croatia once the borders were re-opened.

“Yes, we have already noticed first infected people coming from holidays,” confirmed Czech Health Minister Adam Vojtěch to server Seznam Zprávy. However, there are only a few such cases reported, “not dozens”, Vojtěc added.

Earlier this month, the Czech government was facing criticism due to its slow reaction to a regional coronavirus outbreak in the Karviná area, which puts the Czech Republic among the EU countries currently facing a sharp rise in positive COVID-19 cases.

The Karviná area is currently the most affected Czech region with 247 cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 inhabitants, of which most cases were reported after massive testing of miners from the local coal mines.

In response to the outbreak, however, the state coal miner company OKD only closed its mines in the area on Friday (3 July) despite opposition parties calling for closures much earlier. Foreign Minister Tomáš Petříček (S&D) admitted that the government should have reacted to the local epidemiological situation faster.

Besides, the government announced it would support the Czech automotive industry with money from the EU recovery fund as the sector was severely hit by the pandemic. Other investment priorities are health care and digitalisation.

“We need to solve our automotive industry facing big problems. We need to restructure the health care system and invest a lot in it. We need to tackle digitisation. We need to primarily support the construction sector. We must invest to get out of the crisis,” Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš said on Tuesday (21 July)

As of Wednesday (22 July), the Czech Republic reported 14,324 confirmed COVID-19 cases, which is 153 more than the day before. Since the start of the pandemic, there have been 360 deaths and more than 8,918 recoveries.

Pandemic cyber attacks

The number of cyber incidents increased by one-third during the COVID-19 pandemic in the Czech Republic, said Karel Řehka, director of the Czech National Cyber and Information Security Agency (NCISA) during a Security Conference held on Thursday (25 June) in Prague.

About half of these cases involved data encryption through blackmailing programs (ransomware), the director added.

According to Řehka, the Czech Republic has so far been lucky to avoid being hit by serious global cyberattacks and other incidents but he cautioned that “it will not last forever.”

In his view, the pandemic was useful in drawing the attention of managers and politicians to the issue of cybersecurity, as hospitals in Czechia are often targeted by cyberattacks.

Reopening borders

On 5 June, the Czech government removed all travel restrictions between the Czech Republic, Austria, Germany and Hungary, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš announced on 4 June. When it comes to Slovakia, travel restrictions between the two countries were removed at midnight on 4 June and those travelling were obliged to undergo a two-week quarantine or show a negative COVID-19 test upon return.

Previously, the Czech government approved the so-called “traffic lights” system for travelling abroad, in which all European countries have been divided into three groups marked with specific colours – red, amber and green – according to data gathered by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control agency (ECDC).

Sweden and the UK were put in the red “high-risk” group, meaning that people returning from these countries have to show a COVID-19 negative test or undergo a 14-day quarantine.

Belgium, France, Italy, Spain and other countries severely hit by the virus were marked with the colour amber. Foreigners coming to the Czech Republic from these countries are obliged to go into quarantine or show a negative test, whereas Czech people are not obliged to do so.

Those travelling to “green countries”, which include neighbouring states, the Baltics, Croatia and Greece, will be able to do so without restrictions.

As of 1 July, however, the Czech Republic decided to reduce the EU’s list of 15 non-EU states from where travel to Europe will be possible starting today (1 July).

Czech borders only opened for Serbia, Montenegro, Thailand, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea, meaning that Algeria, Georgia, Morocco, Rwanda, Tunisia and Uruguay – which all feature on the EU’s list – have been left out.

“We want to motivate the countries to start treating us the same, to enable our citizens to travel there without conditions. This is why foreigners from these countries are not able to travel to the Czech Republic for the time being. But we are prepared to react very flexibly to a changing situation. This is the introduction of reciprocity,” Foreign Minister Tomáš Petříček said.

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A gradual lifting of restrictions

The obligation to wear face masks indoors or on public transport will be cancelled at the beginning of July, Czech Health Minister Adam Vojtěch announced on Thursday (18 June).

Also, restaurants and pubs will now be allowed to open beyond 11 pm.

However, the regions in which the number of COVID-19 cases remains high will have to keep restrictions, with face masks to be worn in cinemas, theatres or on public transport. “We want to move away from national restrictions to recommendations, local restrictions and the individual responsibility of everyone,” Vojtěch said

The state of emergency declared on 12 March in an effort to contain the coronavirus outbreak ended on 18 May.

From then on, however, people were obliged to wear facemasks in closed public spaces, including shops and means of public transport. And restaurants and hotels reopened their indoor spaces on 25 May.

Yet, since the number of infections had begun to stabilise by the end of April, the Czech government gradually lifted lockdown measures since 20 April, the day it allowed craftsmen’s shops and farmers markets are opened again under strict hygienic conditions.

“We no longer have a general problem of rising numbers of positively tested patients in the Czech Republic, but we have local epicentres,” said Health Minister Adam Vojtěch who presented the results of blanket testing of 27,000 participants from different age groups and regions to gather information on ‘herd immunity’ on 6 May, adding that the number of unreported coronavirus cases and the level of immunisation are low in the Czech Republic.

On 26 April, the head of the Institute for Health Information and Statistics, Ladislav Dušek, told Czech TV that the country could start returning back to normal. “Tests show us every single day that the spreading is not uncontrollable and is even slowing down,” he added.

Already on 14 April, the government had published its COVID-19 exit plan, which detailed the gradual release of measures in five phases between 20 April and 8 June, although the government had emphasised that it could always be reviewed depending on circumstances.

On 20 April, farmers‘ markets and craftsmen were not only allowed to reopen their businesses under strict hygiene conditions, but the so-called ‘smart quarantine’ system was also launched in all Czech regions.

The app allows medical workers to track past moves of infected people in order to find and test their previous contacts. With the consent of the user, the system uses mobile phone and banking data and was already tested in one Czech region at the end of March.

As of 1 May, Slovaks commuting from Hungary and Austria every day had to present proof of having tested negative for COVID-19, and pay for it. However, as it became clear that not many would have been able to get tested in the remaining time, many critics have also highlighted the fact that 30-day old results do not serve a purpose.

On 11 May, shopping centres, hairdressers and other salons were reopened again and restaurants could serve customers in outdoor gardens again. The ban on international transport by bus and train was lifted as seasonal healthcare and social workers from third countries who had been tested negative for the virus could start entering the country.

And from 25 May, pubs and hotels were allowed to reopen, although the initial date was set for 8 June. From that date, Czechs were no longer obliged to wear facemasks in public spaces as they had to since 19 March, the government decided on 11 May.

However, masks remained mandatory in shops, institutions and all closed public spaces including public transport.

Read more about the country’s exit strategy:

Czech beer gardens to resume on 25 May

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EU recovery programme: A Czech view 

In response to the European Commission’s €750 recovery fund proposal presented to EU member states on 27 May, Czech PM Andrej Babiš said the EU should only borrow money that is comparable to the economic decline caused by the crisis, calling it a “big debt”.

Yet, according to him, economies with a GDP lower than the EU average should obtain access to the same amount of money as they have in the current programming period. He also wants the funds to be distributed by the same allocation key as it was in 2014-2020 and emphasised the importance of cohesion and investments in traditional economic sectors.

Before that, when the EU recovery programme for €500 billion was being championed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, the Czech PM said: “We have husbanded responsibly, other states were not responsible.”

Even after a videoconference with Merkel on 19 May, Babiš said he does not see why he should give the duo a guarantee, adding that “even solidarity has its limits.”

Towards the start of the pandemic, both Czech PM Babiš and Health Minister Adam Vojtěch were critical of the EU regarding the coronavirus crises, blaming the EU for insufficient coordination. The PM was shocked after German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on 11 March that in a “worst-case scenario, 70% of the German population” would be infected by COVID-19.

On 11 June, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš suggested that before distributing EU recovery fund money, it was best to wait until it becomes clear how much individual countries are affected by the pandemic. “In my view, the main criteria should be the fall in GDP. This must be evaluated not sooner than at the beginning of next year,” he said on 11 June after the V4 summit hosted by Czechia.

The PM also warned that there are still many unsolved questions including conditions under which the EU should borrow money on financial markets.

More about EU relations and the Czech Republic during these times:

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State of emergency extended twice

After declaring a 30-day state of emergency on 15 March, the government decided that starting on 16 March, people would only be allowed to leave home for work, to buy food and visit their family members in urgent cases.

On 28 April, the Czech parliament voted to extend the state of emergency until 17 May, one week earlier than PM Andrej Babiš had asked for.

Until 11 April, the Czech government had imposed limits on free movement, required face masks in public areas. All shops and restaurants except for supermarkets, grocery stores and pharmacies also had to remain closed. 

On 14 March, the government had already shut most shops and restaurants for ten days, after it had closed schools, and banned public events such as sports games and concerts. Before the outright ban, gatherings with more than 100 people had first been banned on 10 March, to be superseded by a ban on public events with over 30 people the day after.

While the state of emergency also barred people from entering the country, people working in border areas are still allowed to cross borders.

Starting at midnight on 18 March, Czechs could only be in public areas wearing face masks or covers. However, since no masks had been available in pharmacies, many Czech citizens who wanted protection were forced to sew masks by themselves.

During the lockdown, some restrictions limiting the travel of Czech citizens and forcing them to undergo a two-week quarantine upon return turned out to be illegal, according to Prague’s Municipal Court ruling of 23 April.

Because these restrictions were introduced by the Czech health ministry, the court held that only the government and not a single ministry could impose such measures under the state of emergency rules.

The law was then changed, allowing for Czechs to travel if they could present a negative COVID-19 test or be in isolation for two weeks upon return.

Since the state of emergency was declared, the economy had also taken a hit.

The Czech Republic expects to see its GDP decline by 6.7% in 2020 and by 4% in 2021, while unemployment is expected to rise by 5% in 2020 and slightly decrease to 4.2% in 2021.

According to consulting firm Bisnode, the hospitality and automotive sector, in particular, have been seriously paralysed by the strict anti-coronavirus measures.

For more about the state of emergency in the Czech Republic, read here:

Medical sector: mask supply shortage and Italy debacle

On 17 March, following reports of mask shortages, Prime Minister Andrej Babiš apologised for the severe lack of medical supplies for hospitals and healthcare workers, after the PM had reassured citizens on 14 March that the country has enough protective equipment. Health Minister Adam Vojtěch, however, admitted the country might have a respirators shortage. 

Still, the government played the ‘blame game’.

Although Server suggested that the government had decided to centralise all medical equipment purchases and banned distributors from directly from providing equipment to hospitals, the PM said the government was powerless as delivery contracts had been cancelled.

Vojtěch even started to blame hospitals for not ensuring they had protective equipment.

Babiš also criticised the fact that 10,000 respirators were in state material reserves. However, only the PM, his health and finance minister (all from the same party, ANO) could have influenced the number of respirators available in the state reserves.

Meanwhile, the country was caught seising facemasks and respirators from China that were actually supposed to be delivered to Italy.

Although Foreign Minister Tomáš Petříček announced in an interview with Czech News Agency on 22 March that masks would be sent to Italy the following week, the government labelled the seizure an accident involving an organised group suspected to fraud. However, due to complicated logistics, Czechia will keep the shipment, and the Chinese Red Cross will send a new one to Italy.

Later, the Czech Republic offered to donate protective suits for medical staff to Italy and Spain as it “can afford it and they desperately need them,” Interior Minister Jan Hamáček said on 26 MarchHowever, the Czech government refused to send military doctors to Southern Europe as “they are needed at home” and are “an important part of our fight against the coronavirus outbreak,” Defence Minister Lubomír Metnar wrote on Twitter.

The Czech government also was supportive of France.

Prime Minister Andrej Babiš told Czech Television on 5 April that the country will be treating six patients from France. “France turned to us with a request for help and thanks to sufficient capacity we were able to satisfy them,” the PM said.

In recent months, the opposition drew attention to suspicious circumstances under which protective equipment, including facemasks, and respirators had been purchased since the coronavirus outbreak.

This led to the Czech Republic’s National Headquarters against Organized Crime (NCOZ) – which is in charge of examining purchases of protective equipment during the state of emergency – to raid several private companies on 2 July and requesting documents from the country’s health ministry of health.

For example, a company known as LA Factory sold protective masks to the ministry for 1.2 billion CZK (€50 million), although it had been almost inactive before the outbreak, and had no sales or employees, Aktuálně.cz wrote.

US concerned by cyber-attack threat against Czech Republic's healthcare

The United States is concerned by the threat of a cyber-attack against the Czech Republic’s healthcare sector, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Friday (17 April), adding that anybody engaged in such activity should “expect consequences.”

For more, check here:

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