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Coronavirus: Latvia has sacked its health minister and the PM's interim choice said 'Nē' - what now?

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Krišjānis Kariņš told Latvians he had lost his confidence in his health minister
Krišjānis Kariņš told Latvians he had lost his confidence in his health minister   -   Copyright  John Thys/AP
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Latvia is currently trying to find a replacement health minister after the incumbent was fired by the prime minister in the middle of the pandemic.

Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš announced on Tuesday that he had lost confidence in Ilze Viņķele, telling journalists "there had been no clear and understandable action plan" for the roll-out of coronavirus vaccinations.

Bizarrely, at the same time, Viņķele was reportedly holding her own press conference to lay out such a strategy.

"Every day that passes, delaying [the] availability of vaccines, may cost someone's health or life," Kariņš said at the briefing, adding that he expected an "energetic person with a clear vision" to fill the vacancy in the cabinet.

Viņķele, meanwhile, said she offered her resignation - which was accepted - upon hearing the news from colleagues that her job was in jeopardy. She believes the decision came down to differences of opinion during the pandemic, going further on Twitter to say there had been "personal dislikes from day 1".

The health minister said there had been "personal dislikes" from the outset

Latvia was largely spared when COVID-19 first broke out in March; however, the second wave has been less kind. The country of 1.9 million people has since been subject to strict restrictions through the winter, which have been extended until mid-January as hospital beds run low.

On Tuesday, 1,229 people tested positive for the disease, while 32 people died - the second-highest daily figure. December 27 was the country's worst day for COVID deaths as 44 people lost their lives.

This means a total of 45,171 people in Latvia have been infected since the start of the pandemic and 754 people have died, according to the Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (SPKC).

So what's in the vaccination strategy?

Viņķele, having already been criticised for her speed in launching a vaccination programme, was then also knocked for focusing mostly on the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine - yet to be approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA).

On Tuesday, the Pfizer/BioNTech was the only EMA-approved vaccine, but it was joined by Moderna on Wednesday.

The country is currently expecting 424,000 doses from AstraZeneca, 98,000 doses from Pfizer/BioNTech, 63,000 from CureVac and 42,000 from Moderna. This will be followed up by another 850,000 AstraZeneca doses later in the year.

So far, nearly 2,000 people have been vaccinated.

Krišjānis Kariņš said he had lost his confidence in the health minister

Who will replace Viņķele?

Latvia still has Viņķele until Thursday, but from then on the situation becomes unclear.

Kariņš has ordered Viņķele's party, Development/For!, one of five parties in the government coalition, to pick a new health minister, having nominated current Defence Minister Artis Pabriks as an interim solution.

Pabriks, however, who is another Development/For! politician, has been vocal about his opposition to taking up the role, bouncing the suggestion back to the PM.

He said: "Today I am doubly surprised. First, about the unexpected resignation request of the prime minister to I. Viņķele, then about, as it were, my appointment as a substitute [...]

"In this COVID-19 crisis, I believe these responsibilities must be borne by the head of government himself."

Kariņš is a member of the New Unity Party, which has the fewest seats in Latvia's 100-seat Saeima.

Artis Pabriks said he thought the PM should take up the role himself

Despite the seemingly messy situation, which, during a pandemic, could likely not come at a worse time for the Latvian government, Development/For! has been rapidly searching for a successor.

Several candidates are being lined up, but no decisions have yet been made, according to Latvian news agency LETA.