PRAGUE (Reuters) – The Czech government dropped plans on Friday to open all retail shops from next week due to a surge in coronavirus cases as hospitals struggle with a continued influx of patients and a dwindling number of available beds.
The country of 10.7 million has Europe’s highest infection rate with 968 new cases per 100,000 people on a two-week basis, according to data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).
Health Minister Jan Blatny said the COVID-19 situation had “significantly worsened”.
“Because of that, the government agreed that the original idea for opening some shops won’t happen on Monday (as planned),” he told a televised press conference.
In several regions, hospitals that are full have been transferring patients to a decreasing number of less-strained facilities. The government said earlier this week it might ask neighbouring Germany to take in patients if the situation worsens further, despite earlier rejecting calls from the most pressured border regions to do so.]
Blatny said people would be required from Monday to wear higher quality respiratory masks known as FFP2-grade in shops, public transport and hospitals. Only shops selling food and other goods deemed essential are currently open.
Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis’ minority government has faced accusations of chaotic management and unpredictability during the pandemic from the opposition and citizens’ groups, but it is also facing growing demands to ease restrictions.
The government’s latest move on shops also came under fire.
“Shop owners invested in vain tens of millions of crowns into preparations. Such steps are unfair and further undermine the government’s credibility,” Tomas Prouza, President of the Czech Confederation of Commerce and Tourism, said on Twitter.
The government is still planning to partly reopen schools in March, with regular testing of teachers and children.
Hospital capacity has come under increasing pressure in recent weeks.
As of Friday, 14% of intensive care and high dependence beds were available across the country, including 149 places for COVID patients. The number of those hospitalised in a serious condition has reached 1,258, above a previous peak in November.
(Reporting by Robert Muller; Editing by Jan Lopatka and Gareth Jones)