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Czech PM Babis taps epidemiologist as minister to fight COVID-19 surge

PRAGUE (Reuters) - Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis tapped a top epidemiologist as health minister on Monday after the previous minister quit amid a spike in COVID-19 infections that has led to the country’s total cases doubling within just three weeks.

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The Czech Republic’s spike in cases has been the second fastest in Europe on a rolling two-week basis after Spain when adjusted for population. On Monday, the total tally of cases grew past 50,000, up from 24,618 at the end of August.

The jump comes after the country - which was very quick to take strong measures to avoid mass spreading in the spring - loosened restrictions more than many others in the summer. It also comes just before regional elections less than two weeks away.

The surge has markets nervous, with the crown falling more than 1% on Monday to a nearly four-month low of 27.225 to the euro amid worry new restrictions could come into play and hurt an economy recovering from a record 11% year-on-year contraction in the second quarter.

In a televised address on Monday evening, Babis repeated the government did not want mass lockdowns like those in March that shut businesses, restaurants and schools. He urged people to stick to existing measures and wear face masks.

Babis picked Roman Prymula, who helped lead the central European country’s response to the initial coronavirus outbreak, to replace Adam Vojtech, who quit on Monday after growing criticism.

“Professor Prymula will have crisis management as his main task,” Babis said.

Prymula is widely seen as a straight talker, who once warned Czechs that travel could be disrupted for two years because of the novel coronavirus. He has said daily cases could swell to 6,000-8,000 from around 1,000-3,000 now.

Vojtech had been heavily criticised over the new wave of infections although some opposition politicians saw him as a scapegoat for the government, which critics say has been inconsistent in its response.

Debate is growing over whether the government should take steps allowing it to impose stricter measures if needed.

In the past 14 days, the Czech Republic has had 197 cases per 100,000 people, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, less than only Spain.

The ‘R’ number, which measures how many people are likely to be infected by one person carrying the virus, has hit 1.62.

The virus has killed 521 people in the country, rising 23% since Aug. 31, while hospitalisations have almost tripled in that time. The government has said there were enough hospital beds and staff for now but unchecked spreading could stretch capacities.

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

Reporting by Jason Hovet, Robert Muller and Jan Lopatka, Editing by Tomasz Janowski, Timothy Heritage and Chizu Nomiyama

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