The Czech Republic, a country hailed for its swift response to the coronavirus in March, has reintroduced sweeping restrictions as it nears a crisis point.
Roman Prymula, the nation’s new health minister, announced new limitations on bars and public events following the resignation of his predecessor after it emerged Covid-19 infections have doubled over the past three weeks.
Indoor gatherings are restricted to 10 people if they are standing and to 50 outdoors, whilst bars, pubs and restaurants will close at 10pm, starting on Thursday.
Infections across the Czech Republic are currently increasing at one of the highest rates in Europe, second only to Spain. A total of 2,394 new cases were recorded on Wednesday, the country’s second highest daily rise since the pandemic began, according to Health Ministry Data.
The surge in cases comes after the government eased restrictions more than almost any other country in Europe.
In July, thousands of Czechs took to the streets to hold ‘farewell parties’ for the pandemic. Around 2,000 people knocked elbows as they ate, drank and celebrated seated at a 515-metre-long table on the medieval Charles Bridge in Prague.
At the time, the Czech Republic had been crowned one of Europe’s biggest virus-fighting success stories, but the title has not endured.
“The country opened up too quickly,” explained Martin McKee, a professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
“The initial response was quick, when there were very few cases. This is probably the most important factor. Another was the early and widespread use of face coverings.”
The Czech Republic’s 10-million strong population was swiftly placed into one of the continent’s harshest lockdowns in March, closing most retail business, borders and schools before many other countries.
It was also the first in the continent to mandate the wearing of masks, both indoors and in public. By June, there were around 300 deaths nationwide, one of the lowest tolls in Europe.
Now, the severity of the Czech Republic’s second wave offers a cautionary tale.
“The prime minister seems to be very concerned about public opinion and he may have wanted to please the public by relaxing the measures, which would be ok if all this would not happen so hastily, almost chaotically, and far too fast,” said Martin Bobak, a Professor of Epidemiology at UCL.
“This gave the population an impression that the epidemic was over.”
This week, Prime Minister Andrej Babis said health services were overwhelmed and unable to contact trace those who had interacted with infected people in Prague and the central Czech Republic.
The capital is especially hard-hit, with 217 infections per 100,000 people, making it the most affected region outside of France and Spain.
Meanwhile, the architect of the Czech Republic’s initial response Adam Vojtěch resigned from his position as health minister on Monday, a further sign the country’s efforts had gone sideways.
Mr Vojtěch was heavily criticised over the new wave of infections, though many opposition politicians see him as a scapegoat for the government, which critics argue is inconsistent in its response.
Just last month, as infections began to grow, Mr Babis opposed a health ministry plan presented by Vojtěch to introduce restrictive measures, including mandatory face masks at schools and elsewhere.
“Vojtěch was undermined by Babis, perhaps because Vojtěch’s more radical views became unpopular,” explained Professor Bobak.
“The prime minister seems to follow public opinion closely, and only the rising number of cases, hospitalisations and deaths probably influenced his decisions to reintroduce some measures to slow down the epidemic.
“I personally suspect that the measures announced today will not be enough.”