Covid-19: School closures, stricter measures imposed in new state of emergency

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Amidst a sharp and steady uptick in Covid-19 cases, Prime Minister Andrej Babiš on Monday evening announced tightened measures, including the closing of schools, as of Wednesday. For many weeks, the Czech Republic has recorded the highest per capita infection rate in the European Union. But Mr Babiš insisted he and his government had made “no major mistakes” in responding to the pandemic.

By most measures, the Czech government handled the “first wave” of Covid-19 well. It was quick to impose a lockdown, travel restrictions, the mandatory wearing of facemasks in public. When it shut schools and non-essential businesses, the state paid part of affected employees’ salaries, in order to prevent layoffs.

But with about 493 new Covid-19 cases per 100,000 residents over the past 14 days, the Czech Republic is now the most affected in the EU. Against this backdrop, the government announced on Monday that all primary and secondary schools, but not pre-schools or kindergartens, must close on October 14 and move to online teaching for two weeks and then have a week of holiday. Restaurants and bars will not close, but only be allowed to offer takeaway services, and only up until 8pm.

These and other measures come following a far more serious “second wave” after the end of the summer holidays than critics say the government failed to anticipate or adequately prepared for. By late September, as many people were testing positive for Covid-19 here on a daily basis as in Germany – a country with a population eight times as big.

Andrej Babiš, photo: ČTK/Michaela Říhová

In a televised address to the nation just three weeks ago, following the resignation of his then health minister, Prime Minister Andrej Babiš acknowledged missteps and some confusion during the Covid-19 “first wave” and apologised for them. But at a late-night press conference on Monday, at which stricter measures within the new state of emergency were introduced, he struck a very different tone.

“Of course, people are dying – people with Covid are dying. Yes. And I’m sorry for it. The coronavirus is probably shortening their lives. I’m terribly sorry about that, which is why I’m doing my utmost to prevent a fundamental problem. So, I don’t know what mistakes have been made or where the fundamental problem is.”

Instead of a hundred cases a day and often not even a single death, as in the spring, the Czech Republic this autumn has seen many thousands. More than 8,600 cases were registered in a single day last week, and 24 people “with Covid-19” died in as many hours.

With hundreds of nurses and doctors having fallen ill, Health Minister Roman Prymula is calling on medical students and retired professionals to step in to help if need be. He told reporters on Monday evening he aims to double capacity to handle serious Covid-19 cases.

Roman Prymula, photo: ČTK/Vít Šimánek

“We must do this while there is still a chance. We all must accept these measures for the next two to three weeks or the hospitals will be overwhelmed. We spoke directly with the heads of all faculty hospitals today about how to strengthen the system. Simply put, we will double capacity so we are ready for the next wave.”

Apart from school closures and restrictions on bars and restaurants, throughout the three-week state of emergency a ban on the public consumption of alcohol is in place. Face masks must be worn on public transportation, as before, but newly also at tram and bus stops, and on railway platforms. A maximum of six people can gather in a group, whether indoors or outside.