PRAGUE (Reuters) - In June, hundreds of Czechs sat down along a 500-metre table on Prague’s Charles Bridge to celebrate overcoming the coronavirus pandemic with little loss of life.
Three months later, the country has Europe’s second-fastest pace of new cases, hospitals are filling up and authorities are racing to catch up.
In May and June, the government lifted most coronavirus restrictions whose quick imposition in March had helped the country of 10.7 million fare much better than most in Western Europe.
Bars and discos reopened, face masks largely disappeared and thousands were allowed at cultural and sports events. Regulations became some of the most relaxed in Europe.
With 345 COVID-19 deaths by the end of June, there was a feeling among some Czechs that the measures had been too strict, an overreaction.
The past seven days have seen 14,271 cases, as many as in more than four months in the initial wave. Last week, a record 3,128 new infections were reported in a single day.
The number of hospital patients has risen more than threefold in September.
Prague’s General University Hospital’s intensive care unit was 70% full on Tuesday, department chief Martin Balik said. His main worry was potential school closures cutting staff numbers.
“When I don’t get three nurses coming to work because they have to cover for their children at home, then I am one ICU bed short,” Balik said.
The government says the health system is coping so far but a point would come where other care would have to be reduced unless the situation is brought under control.
The government has resisted bringing back tough coronavirus rules and critics say its policy zig-zags have sapped public trust.
“We are most hurt by constant changes and often contradictions in rules for our activities,” said music promoter David Gaydecka.
As late as Sept. 1, the Health Ministry loosened rules to allow thousands of people into stadiums and other events.
As school reopenings in September neared, Health Minister Adam Vojtech said face masks would be needed again in school corridors. He was overruled by Prime Minister Andrej Babis.
Babis told lawmakers during a debate in parliament last week to “stop dealing with coronavirus all the time”.
On Monday, he admitted he had taken things too lightly, saying: “I let myself be carried away by the summer and the atmosphere in society.”
Earlier that day, Vojtech quit. His successor Roman Prymula, who has warned daily cases could jump to 6,000-8,000, announced tighter measures, including closing bars early and restricting numbers at events.
He is facing a less cooperative public. A survey by PAQ research showed just 28% of people under 34 abide by most measures, a slump from 83% in March.
For an interactive graphic on coronavirus cases in the Czech Republic: tmsnrt.rs/3hWwRSn
Reporting by Robert Muller and David W. Cerny; Graphics by Jason Hovet; Editing by Jan Lopatka, Mike Kahn and Janet Lawrence
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