World News

Czech PM moves to sack health minister for lockdown violation

PRAGUE (Reuters) - Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis moved to sack his health minister on Friday for holding a meeting in a restaurant closed under government restrictions as the country combats Europe’s fastest spread of the novel coronavirus.

FILE PHOTO: Czech Republic's Prime Minister Andrej Babis speaks on the phone as he attends a meeting on the second day of an EU summit, in Brussels, Belgium October 16, 2020. Kenzo Tribouillard/Pool via REUTERS

Health Minister Roman Prymula rejected calls to resign, including from Babis and his junior coalition partner, and said the meeting with two other officials took place in a private room and no regulations were broken.

The Blesk newspaper published pictures of Prymula leaving a restaurant late at night and entering a car without a face mask, apparent violations of rules that closed restaurants and require wearing masks in most places, including chaffered cars.

Babis demanded Prymula’s resignation after the tabloid published the photographs in Friday’s edition. Under the Czech constitution President Milos Zeman must act on the dismissal for it to come into effect.

“When our medical staff are fighting on the front line to save lives of our fellow citizens, such a thing is absolutely inexcusable,” Babis told reporters. “We cannot preach water and drink wine.”

The prime minister later met Zeman to discuss Prymula’s dismissal and the appointment of a successor, although he did not name the choice to reporters afterward.

Babis said Zeman will on Tuesday meet with the nominee, who could be appointed by Thursday. Typically the head of state would approve a dismissal request but Zeman has in the past refused.

The scandal comes as the Czech government struggles to slow Europe’s largest per-capita infection rate and the rising number of cases is raising fears strained hospitals could buckle.

Prymula, 56, an epidemiologist and reserve army colonel called up by Babis to help manage the deteriorating COVID-19 situation just a month ago.

The country of 10.7 million reported its second-highest daily tally of cases, at 14,151, on Thursday. In total, there have been 1,845 deaths, tripling since Sept. 26 and including a daily record 113 on Wednesday.

The government has faced criticism for easing most restrictions at the start of summer and then acting too slowly to reimpose them as cases started to spike in the fall.

Reporting by Jan Lopatka, Robert Muller and Jason Hovet; Editing by Michael Kahn and Jon Boyle