Lower house refuses to extend state of emergency raising fears of a set-back in the fight against Covid-19

Andrej Babiš, photo: ČTK / Michal Krumphanzl

The Czech lower house on Thursday rejected a government proposal to extend the state of emergency beyond February 14, despite the worsening coronavirus epidemic in some regions. The decision will effectively end the validity of the restrictions in place and has left the government searching for means to keep the epidemic in check.

After a seven hour marathon in the lower house the opposition parties gave the government’s proposal to extend the state of emergency by another 30 days the thumbs down, arguing that it had been given plenty of time to create a new legal framework to deal with the epidemic. The NO vote came despite the prime minister’s warning that an abrupt end to the state of emergency under the circumstances would cost lives and the health minister’s dire prediction that the Czech health system could collapse within a fortnight. Health Minister Blatny warned that the coming weeks will not be easy.

Health Minister Jan Blatný,  photo: ČTK / Michal Krumphanzl

“This is not good news for Czech citizens. The state of emergency is a crisis instrument to deal with a situation such as this, it is not a political issue. The situation in some regions is extremely grave. We will naturally now apply all the means open to us, but it would be a mistake to think that they are comparable to what we had or will be as effective.”

Given the fact that the vast majority of restrictive measures in place – such as the closure of shops, services, restaurants and the night curfew were linked to the state of emergency the government will now have to find a different way to keep the epidemic from spiralling out of control.

Just what measures will be taken is not yet clear. What is, is that with the state of emergency no longer in force the government will lose the special powers that stem from it and these powers will have to be divided between the Ministry of Health which can issue regulations under the Public Health Act, hygiene offices and the governors of individual regions, who can announce a so-called “state of danger” of health and lives at risk, which would enable them to enforce measures on a regional scale.

Photo: ČTK/David Taneček

The speed with which this will be done will be decisive in preventing a serious deterioration of an epidemic that is already one of the worst in Europe. The government on Thursday placed three districts, where the number of infected is three times higher than in other parts of the country, under lockdown. The measure, taken because of fears that the rate of infection there is fuelled by the more contagious British mutation of the virus, is due to end with the end of the state of emergency on Sunday. Epidemiologists warn that unless they are reinstated the infection could sweep through regions that were showing an improvement, in the south and eastern parts of the country.

Aware of the danger, Germany on Thursday announced it would temporarily reinstate controls on its border with the Czech Republic after designating the country as “very high risk” due to the growing number of coronavirus mutations on Czech territory.

Meanwhile, the vaccination of the population, which would enable the country to return to a normal life, is progressing much more slowly than expected due to a lack of vaccines. And the appeal of the lower house –made immediately after the vote –for people to maintain discipline and adhere to the recommended safety precautions, may fall on deaf ears. Shops, services and restaurants which have been feeling the bite of the government-imposed restrictions can’t wait to reopen and a poll out this week showed that a vast number of Czechs do not isolate with Covid symptoms and half of them think the pandemic is being blown out of proportion by the media.