UPDATE 1-Slovak health minister resigns amid government row and COVID surge

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PRAGUE, March 11 (Reuters) - Slovakia’s health minister said on Thursday he would resign to help defuse a row over coronavirus vaccine shipments that rocked the four-party ruling coalition as the country battles the world’s second highest per capita COVID-19 death rate.

Prime Minister Igor Matovic angered his coalition partners late last month when he bypassed them to order shipments of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine. One party threatened to quit the coalition and another demanded a reshuffle.

Matovic’s critics said Slovakia should have waited first for European Union authorities to approve the Sputnik vaccine.

“Two coalition parties made my resignation a condition for them to stay in the coalition. In such a situation, I think there was no point arguing... I am not glued to my seat (at the ministry),” Health Minister Marek Krajci told a briefing.

Matovic, seeking a smooth transition during the public health crisis, said Krajci’s departure would be “gradual” and take weeks, allowing time for the Sputnik V vaccinations to get underway.

“The man (Krajci) standing next to me sought to protect health and lives with every decision he made. Unfortunately, those who put obstacles in his way made him their target,” the prime minister told the same televised briefing.

Slovakia, like Hungary and others in central Europe that are facing a worsening COVID-19 situation, has looked outside EU channels for shots as the bloc struggles to accelerate its vaccination rollout and catch up with countries such as Britain and the United States.

Matovic this week urged the European Medicines Agency to speed up vaccine approvals.

Slovakia, a country of 5.5 million, has had the world’s second highest per-capita death rate in the past week, according to Our World in Data’s website, after the neighbouring Czech Republic.

Hospitals have been pushed to the limits of their capacity as the number of cases reached 568 per 100,000 people in the past two weeks, four times higher than in Germany, data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control shows. (Reporting by Robert Muller and Jason Hovet; Editing by Gareth Jones)