Battle raging over compulsory vaccinations for high-risk groups

With the Omicron wave due to hit the Czech Republic with full force within 10 days, the new administration is scrambling to take measures that would prevent an overload of hospitals and major fallouts in key sectors of the economy. While vaccination has become something of a mantra for both the old and new administrations, the new government is now on thin ice over a directive on mandatory vaccination for selected high-risk groups.

Prime Minister Petr Fiala entered the coronavirus fray stressing that unlike his predecessor he would not issue impromptu orders and bans but would rely on the good sense and goodwill of the public. Since taking office, he has repeatedly appealed to Czechs to protect themselves and others and get the Covid vaccine to help the country return to a normal life.

However, there is an uncompromising directive from the Babiš government that the new prime minister will have to deal with, that orders mandatory vaccinations of people over 60 and those in high-risk professions such as health workers, police officers, soldiers, firefighters and employees in the social services as of March of 2022.

Illustrative photo: Barbora Sonnková,  Czech Radio

The Fiala cabinet has said it plans to scrap mandatory vaccination for people on the grounds of age, however it appeared inclined to leave the directive in place as regards people in high-risk professions. Now it is facing a storm of dissent from those concerned and the issue of mandatory vaccination has turned into a raging battle not just among common people but medical experts as well.

On Monday, Initiative 21, which is fighting mandatory vaccinations, announced that 14,000 people have now signed a petition against compulsory vaccination – among them 3,200 members of the country’s security forces.

The signatories – among them police officers, firefighters, rescue workers and soldiers - point out that the requirement may lead to many professionals leaving the security forces and jeopardizing the action-capability of the Integrated Rescue System.

According to available data 75.6 percent of police officers are inoculated against Covid, 76 percent of firefighters and 85 percent of soldiers.

Police President Jan Švejdar, a vocal opponent of compulsory vaccination for the police force, officially handed in his resignation to the new interior minister on Monday. Although he did not state this as his reason for leaving the force after 35 years of service, it is one of the issues that he indicated made communication with the Interior Ministry difficult.

Jan Švejdar | Photo: Jan Ptáček,  Czech Radio

He warned earlier that the force could not afford to lose up to a quarter of trained professionals, adding that some of those against vaccination had already made up their minds to leave the police force.

In the health sector the directive has caused even greater upheaval, dividing both epidemiologists and specialists from other spheres of medicine.

More than 1,700 doctors have signed the petition against compulsory vaccinations, stating that they are not against vaccination as such but against enforced inoculation. Some say that they and their families are fully vaccinated against Covid, yet they cannot agree with the directive. This has sparked a war of words between them and the President of the Czech Medical Chamber Milan Kubek who asked them to leave the Medical Chamber voluntarily for damaging their patients. He in turn was accused of being highly unethical.

All eyes are now on the Fiala government, which is expected to decide the thorny issue. Clearly, it is aware of the need to step carefully and listen to those opposing the measure. Interior Minister Vít Rakušan, who was originally in favour of compulsory vaccinations for the police, said he wanted to conduct a survey within the force to find out why a quarter of officers oppose inoculation.