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Czech Republic appoints new health minister as second COVID-19 lockdown looms

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A healthcare worker at a sampling station for COVID-19 in Prague, Czech Republic, Monday, Sept. 21, 2020.
A healthcare worker at a sampling station for COVID-19 in Prague, Czech Republic, Monday, Sept. 21, 2020.   -   Copyright  Petr David Josek/Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved
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With Czech death and infection rates from COVID-19 setting new records, the prime minister has brought in a new health minister that he hopes is more effective at stemming the rising tide.

Roman Prymula, an outspoken epidemiologist who has been critical of the Czech government's response in the past, assumes the health minister post as the country adopts stricter lockdown measures he was advocating.

In April, the Czech Republic had one of the lowest infection rates in Europe and counted as a success its early, comprehensive lockdown and nearly universal use of masks, leading to a system of staged re-opening in late spring while tracking infected people based on the voluntary sharing of mobile phone data and credit card use.

The plan, called “smart quarantine” and intended to keep only those infected at home, was advocated by the previous health minister, Adam Vojtěch.

But with infection rates now among the highest in Europe, the past two weeks has seen a rate of 193 cases per 100,000 people, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

And with infections currently surpassing 3,000 per day in the Czech Republic – a figure equal to the total number in the country for the whole month of March – the idea of smart quarantine has been roundly rejected.

Veto on new restrictions

Amid rising calls for change including more closures and better contact tracing, Prime Minister Andrej Babiš has appointed Prymula to the top healthcare spot.

Babiš himself earlier this month vetoed new COVID-19 restrictions on public gatherings but has now changed course.

Meanwhile, infection rates have risen rapidly in September, with some 1,476 new cases reported yesterday, according to Czech news sources.

That represents a drop from last week’s numbers but a jump from the previous Monday, which saw 1,028. Meanwhile, the Czech broadcaster iRozhlas reports the numbers of people hospitalised has approximately doubled in the last 12 days with 494 now admitted.

Prymula announced on Tuesday that the country should expect more sacrifice to get back on track, saying safety will require, “the utmost cooperation on your part…I want politicians to put aside their political skirmishes about who did what wrong and for people to show greater discipline in respecting the measures taken. We cannot stop this epidemic without you.”

The Central Crisis Staff, which was disbanded, has now been resurrected and Prymula has predicted that daily infection numbers could rise to 6,000-8,000 in a worst-case scenario. He also caused waves when he predicted earlier this year that borders might be closed for a year or more

Yet he is not an advocate of comprehensive shutdowns, instead preferring strategic closures, announcing restaurants and pubs would shut down at 10 pm and sporting events will be restricted.

Czech media outlets are reacting with some reserve to Prymula’s rise, perhaps in light of his past controversial comments and leadership style shaped by a military background – in stark contrast to that of his predecessor, Vojtěch, an attorney.

David Klimeš, a columnist for online news site Aktualne.cz, called the reshuffled a “political move,” noting “Andrej Babiš strongly underestimated the COVID-19 spread in August…although he declared he had taken all the political responsibility in the crisis, he found the scapegoat - the health minister Adam Vojtěch.”

Prymula’s appointment is “logical,” Klimeš added: “He is an epidemiologist, quite popular and on good terms with the PM and the president, Miloš Zeman.” But, he noted, “It is all just a political game. The situation is so bad that the only solution is to impose some level of a lockdown again. Harsh bans will likely be imposed just after regional elections on 2-3 November because of political reasons.”

But Prymula’s reputation as an expert on epidemics, immunity and vaccines and his standing in international virus organizations have earned him respect even from critics.