Czech PM voices opposition to Franco-German proposal

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.

Czech PM Andrej Babiš raised objections to the Franco-German proposal for a €500 billion COVID-19 recovery programme. “We have husbanded responsibly, other states were not responsible.” Even after a videoconference with Merkel on Tuesday (19 May), Babiš said he does not see why he should give the duo a guarantee, adding that “even solidarity has its limits.”

“In principle, I do not like the idea of Europe putting itself into debt,” he added.

Babiš believes the money from the recovery programme should be channelled to the member states in the form of direct grants, and the Czech Republic should also benefit despite having well managed the crisis so far. “It would be unjust if we were penalised for having been successful,” said Babiš

Meanwhile, the state of emergency declared on 12 March in an effort to contain the coronavirus outbreak ended on Monday (18 May).

However, some restrictions will remain in force. People have to wear face masks in closed public spaces including shops and means of public transport. Restaurants and hotels can reopen their indoor places again on 25 May.

As of Monday (18 May), the Czech Republic reported 8,457 confirmed COVID-19 cases. There have been 298 deaths, and 5,462 have recovered.

Masks no longer obligatory in Czech Republic

Wearing face masks and covers in outdoor public areas will no longer be obligatory as of 25 May, the Czech government decided on 11 May.

Czechs have been obliged to wear face masks in all public spaces since 19 March, putting them among Europe’s frontrunners.

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

This decision confirms the government’s willingness to release restrictive measures earlier than previously suggested.

On 11 May, shopping centres, hairdressers and other salons were reopened again and restaurants can serve customers in outdoor gardens.

Numbers of cases stabilising

A collective immunity study conducted by the Czech health ministry shows that the number of unreported coronavirus cases and the level of immunisation are low in the Czech Republic.

Blanket testing of the Czech population took place at the end of April with 27,000 participants from whom only 107 had antibodies to COVID-19.

“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 study results on Wednesday 6 May.

Meanwhile, the joint research of several Czech health institutes for finding a COVID-19 vaccine is currently in the laboratory phase, Health Minister Adam Vojtěch informed. In case of success, the vaccine will be tested on mice.

“There is such a big embargo on the knowledge that we have to look for our own way,” said the chief of the research Věra Adámková, who is also an MP from the governing ANO party (Renew). “Every (foreign company) would feed its own market,” added Adámková. 

Czech Republic to lift ban on international transport

The Czech government decided to lift its ban on international transport by bus and train as of 11 May and will allow seasonal healthcare and social workers from third countries who have tested negative for the virus to enter the country from next week.

Meanwhile, the Czech parliament voted on Tuesday (28 April) to extend the state of emergency until 17 May, a week less than PM Andrej Babiš had asked for. In its motion, the government warned that if the limitations were ended at once, “there would be a serious risk of the epidemiological situation worsening.”

Right-wing opposition parties, however, have said they did not agree with such a long extension and claim the government had not been able to explain why the state of emergency should be extended.

Despite the extension, the Czech Republic plans to reopen parts of the economy earlier than previously planned. Pubs and hotels are set to reopen on 25 May instead of 8 June.

Focus on returning to normal

The Czech Republic has managed to get the coronavirus health crisis under control and can now focus on returning back to normal, the head of the Institute for Health Information and Statistics, Ladislav Dušek, told Czech TV on 26 April.

“Tests show us every single day that the spreading is not uncontrollable and is even slowing down,” Dušek said, admitting that the pandemic could nonetheless return, although maybe only locally, but that Czechs were well prepared for it.

Cancellation of unlawful restrictive measures

Meanwhile, after Prague’s Municipal Court ruled against a number of restrictive measures on Thursday (23 April), the country has now cancelled a number of restrictive measures limiting movement and closing retail businesses.

This is due to the fact that these restrictions were introduced by the country’s health ministry. However, the court held that only the government and not a single ministry could impose such measures under the state of emergency rules. Prime Minister Andrej Babis’ cabinet has until Monday to adopt the measures again in line with the law.

The original legislation had banned Czech citizens from traveling and anyone returning from abroad would be quarantined for two weeks. Now Czechs are allowed to travel, but must show a negative COVID-19 test or be in isolation for two weeks upon return.

Starting Thursday (23 April), the Czech Republic will be testing 27,000 people from different age groups and regions to gather information on ‘herd immunity’.

The results of this cross-sectional immunity study will be known by the start of May, said Czech Health Minister Adam Vojtěch, adding that such study is unique and has no precedent in the modern history of the Czech Republic. 

First wave of loosening measures begins

The first wave of the loosening of measures started on Monday (20 April), with craftsmen’s shops and farmers markets are opened again under strict hygienic conditions.

Meanwhile, the smart quarantine system that should replace most of the lockdown measures in the next few weeks has been launched in all Czech regions on Monday (20 April). 

Thanks to the system, medical workers can track past moves of infected people in order to find and test their previous contacts.

COVID-19 plan

The Czech government published a COVID-19 exit plan on Tuesday (14 April) which states that current measures should be released gradually in five phases between 20 April and 8 June.

From Monday (20 April), farmers’ markets and craftsmen can open their businesses under strict hygiene conditions.

The week after, on Monday (27 April), small shops will be opened and larger shops are set to follow on 11 May, with restaurants and bars serving in outdoor gardens set to open again on the 25 May, although all indoor restaurants, cafes and pubs have to wait until June 8.

Public events with less than 50 participants should be allowed 8 June as well, but schools will remain closed with few exceptions including final exams or entrance examinations.

According to Trade Minister Karel Havlíček, the Czech Republic is the first country in the EU that published such a detailed plan. However, the government emphasised that this plan could be reviewed according to circumstances.

Cross-border commuters at risk

Slovaks who live in Hungary and Austria but commute every day for work to Bratislava will, as of 1 May, be forced to present proof of having tested negative for COVID-19, and pay for it.

However, while it has now become clear that many many will not be 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.

State of emergency

The Czech Parliament has voted on 7 March to extend the current state of emergency until 30 April. The government faced criticism from opposition parties for lack of a clear plan of return to normal life.

While the free movement of persons remains limited, Czechs will be allowed to travel abroad if necessary.

Meanwhile, 204.000 Czech entrepreneurs, mostly in the hospitality sector, have to close their businesses due to strict measures against coronavirus, according to the consulting firm Bisnode. Moreover, the pandemic has paralysed almost 90% of the automotive industry.

Patients from France

The Czech Republic will treat six patients from France, Prime Minister Andrej Babiš told Czech Television on 5 April.

“France turned to us with a request for help and thanks to sufficient capacity we were able to satisfy them,” the PM added.

‘Smart quarantine system’

The ‘smart quarantine’ system, which tracks movement and contacts of positively tested persons to find other infected people, has been launched in one of the Czech Republic’s regions. With the consent of the user, the system uses mobile phone and banking data. If proven effective, it will be implemented in the whole country.

However, before the system is launched across the country, the government has extended preventive measures until 11 April. The restrictions limit free movement, require face masks in public areas, and close all shops, restaurants except for supermarkets, grocery stores and pharmacies.

Medical supplies

The Czech Republic has offered to donate 10,000 protective suits for medical staff to Italy and Spain. “We can afford it and they desperately need them,” Interior Minister Jan Hamáček has said. The Czech Republic has approximately 250,000 of these suits and more are on the way.

However, the Czech government refused to send military doctors to Southern Europe. “They cannot go, they are needed at home. They help and they will do so in the future. the Czech army is an important part of our fight against the coronavirus outbreak,” Minster of Defence Lubomír Metnar wrote on Twitter.

Experimental drug from the US 

The condition of a Czech patient infected by COVID-19 had improved significantly on 27 March after he had received the experimental US drug to treat Ebola, Remdesivir, on 24 March. 

The Czech Republic is one of few countries that has the possibility to get Remdesivir, because the drug’s producer, Gilead Sciences, was flooded by demand and halted emergency access. 

Avoiding a new wave

The chief of Central Crisis Staff and deputy Health Minister Roman Prymula said that border restrictions could last for one or even two years, depending on how other countries manage the outbreak.

“The situation in other European countries will not be good. It will take months and months,” he said, noting that this year most of the Czech citizens will probably spend their holidays in the country.

“We have to avoid the second or third wave of the pandemic, to avoid people from other states, such as Italy, France, Spain and Germany gathering in here,” added Health Minister Adam Vojtěch.

‘Mask diplomacy’

After confiscating a hundred thousand facemasks intended for Italy, Foreign Minister  Tomáš Petříček announced in an interview with Czech News Agency on 22 March that they will indeed be sent to confiscated to Italy at the beginning of this week.

The seizure was an accident, he explained, as Czech officers made a move against an organized group suspected of fraud. It turned out later a part the shipment of facemasks and respirators was a Chinese gift for Italy. Due to complicated logistics, Czechia will keep the shipment, and the Chinese Red Cross will send a new one to Italy.

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Citizens forced to wear protective masks in public

Starting at midnight on 18 March, Czechs will only be able to be in public areas wearing face masks or covers. Since there are no masks available in pharmacies, many Czech citizens who wanted protection were forced to sew masks by themselves. The trade ministry decided to keep craft shops open despite the state of emergency.

Medical supply shortage

For the first time since reporting on the shortages, Prime Minister Andrej Babiš apologised for the severe lack of medical supplies for hospitals and healthcare workers on 17 March.

However, the PM pointed to the government being powerless as delivery contracts had been cancelled and Health Minister Adam Vojtěch started to blame hospitals for not ensuring they had protective equipment.

However, According to Server, the government is to blame, as it had decided to centralise all purchases of medical equipment and banned distributors to directly provide hospitals with 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.

These events come after the PM had reassured citizens on 14 March that the country has enough protective equipment, while Vojtěch had admitted the country might have a respirators shortage.

State of emergency

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 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 Tuesday (10 March), to be superseded by a ban on public events with over 30 people the day after.

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

Critical of the EU and Merkel

Both Czech PM Babiš and Health Minister Adam Vojtěch have been critical of the EU regarding the coronavirus crises, blaming the EU for insufficient coordination. And after German Chancellor Angela Merkel had said on Wednesday (11 March) that in the “worst-case scenario, 70% of the German population” would be infected by COVID-19,  the PM was shocked, saying he believes that Europeans will decide to stay in their home countries after all.

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