Slovakia’s health minister: no second wave yet

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.

While Slovakia recorded its highest daily increase of COVID-19 infections since April on Tuesday (7 July) with 31 new cases, the country’s Health Minister Marek Krajčí said this does not qualify as a second wave because the increase is not exponential and the cases and contacts were both localised and contained.

Slovakia opposed a default opening of the EU’s external borders and supports a gradual opening based on the epidemiologic situation, said Foreign Minister Ivan Korčok.

Securing free movement within the Schengen area remains the country’s priority, he added.

While the state of emergency officially ended in Slovakia after 90 days on Saturday (13 June), shops are to remain closed on Sundays as it will remain a sanitation day, leading public health official Ján Mikas has decided.

Many lawyers have criticised the decision for not being sufficiently explained and reasoned. This issue – whether shops will be required to close on Sundays by law going forward – is a source of tension in the governing coalition

As of Thursday (25 June), Slovakia counted 1,630 COVID-19 infections (23 more in the past 24 hours), 28 deaths and 1,452 recoveries. The country maintains a high level of testing with only a very limited number of new cases.

A team of Slovak scientists from private companies and Slovakia’s Academy of Sciences have developed a new, highly reliable test for the coronavirus which was approved by the State Institute for Drug Control (ŠUKL) on 14 May.

Lifting border restrictions

The government has cancelled compulsory quarantine in state facilities or via the app as it opened borders with all of its EU neighbouring countries on 9 June.

Also, anyone returning from 16 European countries deemed “safe” from an epidemiologic perspective, can move freely. From now on, wearing masks will be voluntary apart from in shops and in public transport.

Meanwhile, the government has announced the further easing of measures starting on 3 June with the state of emergency still remaining in force, despite it being unclear when the state of emergency actually ends. According to the Constitution, it would officially end by mid-June as it can only be declared for 90 days.

“The state of emergency isn’t limiting anyone,” said Prime Minister Igor Matovič (OĽaNO), adding that “it allows us to supply hospitals with protective equipment, should we cancel it, they will need to buy them themselves.”

The borders remain effectively closed with a regime allowing short visits in neighbouring countries provided a person can prove that they live in the country.

As far as the summer holiday season goes, Matovič said they will be looking into possibilities how Slovaks could visit Croatia or Greece, where the epidemiological situation is good.

Facemasks against COVID-19: Why Slovakia became the trailblazer

During the first half of March, as Slovakia went through an early stage of the COVID-19 crisis, it managed to take fast and critical measures. The country’s largest cities were the first places in the EU that enforced compulsory facemasks in public, writes Andrej Šteňo.

Lifting lockdown measures

As the country has seen a decline in COVID-19 cases, Prime Minister Igor Matovič’s government outlined its roadmap to ease restrictions on 21 April. The day before, while the prime minister said the plan would rely on epidemiologists, not economists, President Zuzana Čaputová said both should be listened to as these do not stand in conflict.

Still, the PM said he was conscious of how Slovakia was dependent on the EU’s other major economies, saying Slovakia could not afford to have the pandemic peak at a different time than the core of Europe.

“We must survive and wait out this phase when the big economies fight the coronavirus,” he said, adding that the concern is that should Slovakia ease the restrictions now and the pandemic returns, employees will need to return to quarantine and Slovakia will be unable to supply the big economies that would just emerge from the crisis.

The first of the four-phase plan began on 22 April, reopening shops smaller than 300 square metres, open-air markets, and restaurants for takeaway. Open-air sports facilities were also able to open under certain conditions.

As both the second and third phase had been merged due to a good epidemiological situation, the PM announced on 4 May, hairdressers and taxi drivers were allowed to relaunch their businesses on 6 May. Religious services and weddings were also allowed to take place but with a limited number of attendees.   

As the fourth stage started on 20 May, shopping malls and indoor restaurants were allowed to reopen under some strict restrictions. Theatres and cinemas were also allowed to operate provided the there is a maximum of 100 people in the audience.

And facemasks have now become voluntary outdoors. 

When it comes to travel outside the country, people could travel from 21 May to eight  European countries without the need for a negative COVID-19 test or quarantine as long as travel was shorter than 24 hours.

As grammar schools and kindergartens constitute “too much of a risk” according to the prime minister, the government decided that these would reopen from 1 June under strict hygiene measures, although parents can choose whether to let their children go back to school.

High school entry and graduation exams are allowed under strict hygiene measures, the country’s Public Health Authority announced in a set of guidelines. “Congratulation in case of the successful passing of exams will need to take place without the traditional handshake,” the guidance reads.

For more on the easing of restrictions, look here:

Movement tracking – quarantine debacle

For those coming from aboard, the government launched the smart quarantine app on 25 May, which replaced the mandatory quarantine in the country’s state facilities. Delays in the launch on Android and IOS systems resulted in people gathering at the borders refusing to go in state facilities and demanding to be allowed to go home.

The country’s Public Health Office has now started to track the movements of persons infected with COVID-19 with their consent using the data from telecom operators after parliament passed the so-called ‘lex corona’ bill at the end of March.

Although the government backtracked from using metadata on calls and messages after facing criticism, it will still be possible to track the movement to find out whom a person was with and whether he or she respected quarantine. Under the new rules, the police and secret services will now have to request a court authorisation to access this kind of data.

For those coming from aboard, the government launched the smart quarantine app on 25 May, which replaced the mandatory quarantine in the country’s state facilities. The parliament’s go-ahead was given on 15 May, the day after the government had proposed it. All returning people will need to install an app on their smartphones that will monitor them complying with a home-based quarantine, Health Minister health Marek Krajčí said.

Before that, under the old quarantine system, it was suggested that the government may be forcing citizens into state-run quarantine facilities and threatening them with custody without an appropriate legal basis. Neither the ombudswoman Mária Patákyová nor the NGOs and not even media outlets could get hold of any legally relevant decision that banned the entry of foreigners into the country.

In response, Interior Minister Roman Mikulec (OĽaNO) said the government had closed the border after sending a notification letter to the European Commission invoking Article 23 of Schengen Border Codex.

However, Mikulec refused to make public the respective decision on compulsory state quarantine for Slovaks returning from abroad or the order that stipulates police protocol to be followed at the borders. According to the minister, the information published on the webpages and the accompanying information campaign were sufficient ways to inform the public.

“This state is undesirable not only practically, but also legally, as it violates the principle of legal certainty of persons, who should have access to information about a concrete legal act that prohibits them from crossing the border, in an original and precise wording,“ the ombudswoman Mária Patákyová wrote in a letter to the interior minister, following which the two met.

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General public happy with state of emergency

On 15 March, Slovakia’s government declared a state of emergency. All shops except for food stores, pharmacies, banks, post offices, and petrol stations, were closed and non-residents were barred from entering the country.

The following week, on 24 March, the government announced a new set of measures to contain the pandemic, making the wearing of protective facemasks and 2-metre social distancing compulsory in public. Other measures included taking temperatures in hospitals, production plants and shops. Mass events remain cancelled until further notice.

Almost 80% of citizens said they approved of the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, according to an exclusive poll for the daily Dennik N published on 29 March. Only 5% deemed them excessive, while 13% would have welcomed even more restrictive measures. People resolutely agree with the obligatory wearing of facemasks, as well as the closure of schools and of shops.

This comes after recently appointed Prime Minister Igor Matovič had promised to increase COVID-19 testing ten-fold to 3,000 per day and involve private laboratories on 26 March. The PM criticised the previous government for only having enough highly reliable testing kits for the next ten days as the new health minister, Marek Krajčí (OĽaNO), had pointed out that tests bought from China were not sufficiently reliable.

President Zuzana Čaputová had then urged the government coalition to publicly communicate measures which are aimed at taming the pandemic, particularly as the state secretary of the foreign and European affairs ministry, Martin Klus, said on 24 March that the Russian narrative that tries to picture the EU as a failing project was “gaining ground, especially in the alternative media.”

“It is very important to communicate more substantial information and fewer suggestions that lack concrete contours. We need more prudence and calming the public, fewer uncertainties,” the president said.

For more about what went down during the state of emergency, see here:

COVID-19 restricts access to abortions in Slovakia

In today’s edition of the Capitals, find out more about EU member states beginning to announce COVID-19 lockdown measures, Slovakia’s problem with abortion, particularly in coronavirus times, and so much more.

Roma settlements and abortions – more vulnerable since the pandemic

However, the government has come under fire for how it has dealt with the Roma community and abortions during the state of emergency.

Ombudswoman Mária Patakyová and various experts, in particular, have criticised the way the government has been handling Roma communities during the crisis. In response, the PM said these “so-called human rights activists” were “only courageous behind keyboards in Bratislava”, disregarding the fact that many of them have worked on the ground with Roma communities for years.

Five Roma settlements in the eastern part of the country with more than 6,000 people were quarantined and guarded by the police, which contravenes the government’s own guidance to close whole areas only when the portion of infected reaches 10%. In one of the settlements, an on-duty-police-officer had allegedly beaten a group of five children. While the officer has already been removed from the site despite denying any wrongdoing, the interior ministry’s inspectorate has promised to lead an investigation into the case.

Concerning abortions, the government has decided to postpone all planned surgeries except life-saving ones due to the risk of infection during the COVID-19 pandemic, following which many hospitals have stopped performing the procedure.

With the abortion pill, the safest non-surgical method, being illegal in Slovakia, the country’s health ministry has urged women to protect their health and not request any procedures from doctors that can seriously affect their health, effectively limiting their access to safe pregnancy termination. Some women have even travelled to Austria to obtain treatment.

The country’s Ombudswoman requested Health Minister Marek Krajčí (OĽaNO) to guarantee women have access to safe abortions during the pandemic.

In response, a ministry spokeswoman, who qualified the statement as “a very serious allegation, that is unfounded and without any substance,” told the TASR agency: “Surely, the ombudswoman will understand that the decreased immunity during operation could multiply the risks of any surgical procedure. Health and lives of mothers, weakened by the surgery, could be very much at risk.”

For more on these issues, read here:

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