Czech vaccine strategy thrown into disarray by fallout in deliveries

Photo: ČTK/Luboš Pavlíček

Shortly after the start of the inoculation process against Covid-19, hailed by the government as the light at the end of the tunnel, mounting problems with deliveries to the EU have resulted in confusion and uncertainty about the set timetable. As tension mounts, government officials are sending out mixed signals to the public and people’s frustration is growing.

Although news of mounting problems with vaccine deliveries to the EU have been at the forefront of media attention for over a week now, the news that the Health Ministry had ordered Prague and the regions to suspend further vaccinations for a fortnight came as a shock on Wednesday afternoon. In the confusion that followed, Prime Minister Andrej Babis refuted that such an order had been given.

Andrej Babiš,  photo: archive of the Office of Czech Government

“I cannot understand why the ministry issued such a recommendation. It was interpreted as an order and then we suddenly hear that vaccination has stopped. It has not. The inoculation process continues. We have inoculated 238,000 people to date, of which 66,200 are people over 80. And it is naturally up to the centres to plan their vaccinations ahead. They know how many vaccines they will get, they know how many people they have given the first jab and they know they will need to get a second within 28 days.”

Health Minister Jan Blatný later echoed this sentiment, saying that the ministry’s spokesperson who released the information had merely wanted to highlight the need to slow down the inoculation process in view of the unexpected cuts in deliveries.

The prime minister apologized for the mix-up, stressing that no central order had been given and those vaccination centres which were cancelling reservations on a mass scale had only themselves to blame for not planning ahead. He said the government was doing its utmost to deal with the situation as well as possible, but there were factors beyond its control.

Jan Blatný,  photo: ČTK/Igor Zehl

Pushed to comment on whether Health Minister Jan Blatný still had his trust, the head of government said Mr. Blatný’s style of communication was not always what it should be. Confronted with the suggestion that the country should think about acquiring the Russian Sputnik vaccine in view of the current situation, floated by the former health minister, epidemiologist Roman Prymula, Mr. Babiš said he preferred to stick with vaccines approved by the EU.

The incident has highlighted the strain that the coronavirus crisis has placed on the Health Ministry and indeed the whole government as it struggles to deal with the second-worst Covid epidemic in the EU. Dismissals and resignations are depleting the ranks of the ministry‘s officials and advisers. In the past five months alone two ministers and three deputy ministers have been forced to leave their posts. Several experts left because they felt their advice was going unheeded and they wanted to distance themselves from the government’s strategy, others in high posts went after it emerged that they had jumped the vaccination cue.

Meanwhile, as the lockdown stretches from weeks to months people’s frustration with the whole situation is growing and it is increasingly difficult for the government to present a united front and defend its strategy.