Beset by pandemic problems, Czech government urges faster action from EMA

Protest against government restrictions, Wenceslas Square, Prague, January 31, 2021, photo: ČTK/Michaela Říhová

The third wave of the coronavirus pandemic is proving to be a huge challenge for the Czech coalition government. Just days after it further tightened the already strict measures in place, it is facing street protests, cases of civil disobedience and accusations of incompetence from the opposition benches.

Several hundred people gathered on Wenceslas Square on Sunday to protest against further measures to curb mobility on Czech territory, demanding “freedom to live and work“ and calling for the resignation of the government. Meanwhile, thousands of Czechs ignored the plea for them to stay at home, heading for the country’s ski resorts, where the police uncovered numerous breaches of the regulation that bans hotels from accommodating anyone who is not there on a working trip. A hotel in the Harrachov mountain resort accommodated 70 paying guests, all there on alleged “business trips”, many of them skiing on the slopes, with the ski lift in operation. Pubs elsewhere opened in defiance of the government’s restrictions.

Protest against government restrictions,  Wenceslas Square,  Prague,  January 31,  2021,  photo: ČTK/Michaela Říhová

Meanwhile, the media speculated that Prime Minister Andrej Babiš was planning to sack the health minister, Jan Blatný, take over supervision of the ministry for a time, and eventually replace him with the very same man who vacated the post three months earlier, epidemiologist Roman Prymula, who was forced to leave office after he was seen leaving a restaurant that was supposed to be closed under the government-imposed restrictions. Although the prime minister dismissed the claim, he has been increasingly critical of Mr. Blatný’s performance in office in recent weeks.

But, of all the government’s woes, the biggest is the fact that the inoculation process is not going ahead as planned. Although it was not suspended – as the Health Ministry wrongly announced last week- it has had to slow down considerably due to a lack in vaccine deliveries. And, apart from growing public frustration with the seemingly endless lock-down, the government is worried about the possible spread of new, more contagious Covid variants in the coming weeks. It has therefore closed borders to foreign nationals, banning all non-essential travel to the Czech Republic.

Jan Blatný,  photo: ČTK / Michaela Říhová

Meanwhile, the Czech prime minister joined the leaders of Austria, Denmark and Greece in sending a letter to European Council President Charles Michel, asking the EC to send a strong signal to the European Medicines Agency (EMA) to ensure that the approval of vaccine candidates is "as efficient as possible" and for more candidates to be considered for approval. They also suggested that the EU consider distributing as yet uncertified vaccines to the member states so that inoculation with them could start the minute they are certified. The signatories of the joint letter stress that “every week counts“ in the race to bring the pandemic under control. The latter statement is particularly pertinent in the Czech Republic, which has one of the highest infection and death rates per capita in Europe.

Moreover, the coalition’s single ally in the opposition, the Communist Party, has indicated it will not support a further extension of the state of emergency beyond February 14, which could put the government’s strategy in jeopardy.