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Czech Republic's COVID-19 daily tally soars as tighter measures start

PRAGUE (Reuters) - The Czech Republic reported a record increase in COVID-19 cases for a third day as it puts new measures in place to battle a surge in infections that is among the fastest in Europe.

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The Health Ministry reported 3,130 new cases for Thursday. The daily rise has spiked to 1,678 on average over the last seven days, up from 853 a week ago.

Adjusted for population, only Spain and France within the European Union have seen a bigger jump in the last two weeks, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

After a strict lockdown kept cases among the lowest in Europe during the initial coronavirus outbreak in March, the Czech government lifted almost all restrictions ahead of summer.

Authorities are now bringing some measures back while seeking to avoid a full-scale lockdown.

From Friday, bar opening hours will be limited, stand-up indoor events banned and face masks -- already required in shops and other buildings -- must be used in schools.

Masks will have to be worn at outdoor events in Prague with more than 100 people from Monday.

The surge in cases comes as Czechs are due to vote in elections for regional governments and a third of Senate seats on Oct. 2-3.

Questioned by opposition lawmakers on Thursday, Prime Minister Andrej Babis said it had perhaps been a mistake to drop masks during the summer.

The country of 10.7 million people has now recorded 44,155 COVID-19 infections, a total that has roughly doubled since Aug. 24. Deaths have risen 15% since Sept. 1, to 489.

While the number of over-65s testing positive is falling, hospitalisations have jumped back to peaks seen in April.

Health officials have said cases could reach 70,000 this month under a scenario where the average number of people to whom one infected person passes the virus stays at 1.6.

(Graphic: Czech spike in COVID-19 cases among fastest in Europe - )

Reporting by Jason Hovet and Robert Muller; Editing by Gareth Jones and Catherine Evans