Czech government agrees last-minute COVID-19 lockdown deal

PRAGUE (Reuters) - The Czech government reached a last-minute deal with regional governors on Sunday to call a new state of emergency for 14 days and avert a chaotic end to coronavirus lockdown measures.

FILE PHOTO: Members of the medical staff transfer a patient suffering from coronavirus disease (COVID-19) from a fully occupied Intensive Care Unit (ICU) of the Nachod hospital, Czech Republic February 11, 2021. REUTERS/David W Cerny

Without extraordinary powers, Prime Minister Andrej Babis’s minority government would be unable to keep nationwide restrictions such as curfews, bans on public gatherings or the closure of shops and services.

Lawmakers last week rejected an extension to the government’s state of emergency beyond Sunday, dealing a blow to efforts to fight one of Europe’s highest COVID-19 infection rates and relieve fast-filling hospitals.

But after talks at the weekend the country’s 14 regions on Sunday called on the government to declare a new state of emergency, which it approved at an extraordinary meeting.

“The end of the state of emergency would mean a de facto easing (of restrictions) and we cannot afford that,” Babis said.

The country has been in various lockdown levels since October. Opposition parties have criticised Babis’s government for its handling of the pandemic and sought changes.

The Communist Party, which props up the government, withheld support last week after demands to reopen schools and ski lifts were not met.

The government had been reluctant to bypass lawmakers, who must approve any state of emergency extension after 30 days, unless regions requested it. Some critics have questioned the constitutionality of immediately calling a new state of emergency.

Under the new deal, the vast majority of measures will not change immediately, though restrictions on state offices will be lifted. Regions also want the government to reopen schools in March.

The overall death toll from COVID-19 has soared to more than 18,000 this month in the country of 10.7 million, from about 700 at the start of October.

The infection rate is the second-highest in Europe behind Portugal, with more than 900 cases per 100,000 people over the past two weeks, according to data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).

That is more than four times neighbouring Germany, which has imposed entry bans on Czech travellers.

Reporting by Jason Hovet; Editing by Gareth Jones and David Goodman