Czechs send facemasks to Italy after mix-up over Chinese gift

PRAGUE (Reuters) - The Czech Republic sent 110,000 facemasks to Italy on Monday after confusion around a larger shipment of gear to protect against the new coronavirus was impounded by Czech authorities last week.

The Czech customs impounded 700,000 facemasks and respirators on Tuesday, saying the shipment had been ordered by Czech medical authorities but an unnamed intermediary had demanded to hike the price.

Later it emerged that part of the shipment - 101,600 facemasks - was a gift by the Red Cross in the eastern Chinese city of Qingtian to the Chinese community in Italy, Czech government officials said.

The Czechs expressed regret and promised to send a replacement for the confiscated material from China, adding a few thousand more, to be shipped by an evacuation bus for 43 Italians heading home.

It was not immediately clear why a gift bound for Italy, separated from the Czech Republic by Austria, went astray.

“We have agreed with the Italian embassy that they will they will receive the (masks) upon the arrival of the bus, which is also carrying Italian citizens, to Italy,” Foreign Minister Tomas Petricek said when helping to load the bus on Monday.

The virus outbreak originated late last year in the central Chinese city of Wuhan.

Italy banned travel within the country on Sunday in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus, as data showed a further 651 people had died from the disease, lifting the number of fatalities to 5,476.

By Sunday, the Czech Republic had reported 1,120 cases of coronavirus infection and one death.

Reporting by Jan Lopatka; editing by Nick Macfie