The Czech Republic could be set for a second lockdown following a dramatic rise in Covid-19 infections that has transformed it into Europe’s fastest growing outbreak just months after being hailed as one of the continent’s success stories in managing the pandemic.
A new peak of 8,618 cases was recorded on Friday in the country of 10.7 million , up more than 3,000 on the previous day and significantly more per capita than any other European state. Spain, with a population of just under 47 million and currently the second worst-affected country, documented 12,788 infections on the same day.
The Czech Republic has now recorded 451.2 Covid cases per 100,000 inhabitants over a 14-day period, compared with 308.1 for Spain, according to European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention statistics.
Friday’s figure, which raises the number of infections recorded in the first 10 days of October above that for the whole of September, left politicians and health experts scrambling for solutions within days of introducing a state of emergency last week.
The country has surpassed a previous worst-case scenario advanced by the health minister, Roman Prymula, a qualified epidemiologist who was appointed last month with a brief to combat soaring infection rates. He said when he took office that without tougher measures numbers could reach between 6,000 and 8,000 a day, which would be beyond the health system’s capacity to cope.
Prymula, who has clashed publicly with eminent doctors in other fields who petitioned against tighter restrictions, has advocated that the bodies of people who die of the virus should be cremated rather than buried to prevent the spread of infection, the Czech news site Denik N reported.
The current outbreak is far cry from last spring, when the Czech Republic became one of the first countries to close its borders and impose a nationwide lockdown in response to the pandemic. Its regulations on face masks, which required coverings to be worn even outdoors for nearly two months, won widespread international praise as infection numbers remained modest compared with other countries.
The apparent success prompted the government of the prime minister, Andrej Babiš, to gradually ease restrictions before lifting them almost entirely in late June.
As the country returned to near normal, however, cases began to surge in August before soaring in September, drawing accusations of complacency from political opponents.
Babiš, who initially vetoed proposals to reimpose mask rules before backtracking, has sought to deflect blame partly onto a supposedly non-compliant public, which he said was less willing than before to follow the rules.
“The virus is behaving differently than at the beginning of the year,” he said last week. “People’s opinion on wearing a face mask has fundamentally changed, and 7% of Czechs never wear one.”
He said at the weekend that he would accept whatever recommendation the team made regarding the need for a second lockdown, Czech Radio reported.
The government brought forward a range of regulations last week, including orders to shut pubs at 8pm, limits on restaurant service to four patrons per table, and closing gyms, swimming pools and zoos.
All sporting, cultural and religious events with more than 10 people indoors and 20 outdoors are prohibited from Monday, and secondary schools and universities have been restricted to distance learning.
Amid signs that the steps were insufficient, Prymula met the government’s expert team of epidemiologists over the weekend to consider additional measures. The national security council is scheduled to meet on Monday, fuelling speculation of a full-scale lockdown despite Babiš’s repeated insistence that there would be no repeat of last spring’s blanket closures.
Prymula said the situation was alarming and admitted that the government’s previous measures had failed. “What concerns me most is not the growing number of infected, but the growing number of people who require hospitalisation and intensive care as well as the growing number of deaths,” he told journalists.