Czechs, Slovaks target unvaccinated people in step behind Austria

By Jiri Skacel

PRAGUE (Reuters) -The Czech Republic and Slovakia banned unvaccinated people from hotels, pubs, hairdressers and most public events from Monday after COVID-19 cases filled hospitals’ intensive care wards, with most of the seriously ill patients not inoculated.

The central European neighbors both adopted the new measures last week, a step behind Austria which first set restrictions on unvaccinated people but went for a full lockdown on Monday as the region experienced the world’s latest hotspot.

The countries took the decision as daily infections reach new records and inoculation rates lag most European Union peers.

Slovakia has the bloc’s third-lowest rate at 46.8%, according to European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), while 60% of the Czech population has at least one dose of the vaccine.

Debate over a possible return to lockdown measures for both vaccinated and unvaccinated is growing, with Slovak news website Dennik N reporting the government could debate a proposal at a Wednesday meeting, following Austria.

Slovakia’s ruling coalition could be split however, and in the Czech Republic, ruling politicians have spoken out against a lockdown even as the Czech Medical Chamber called for one.

Many businesses fear a return to harsher restrictions like a year ago when most shops and restaurants had to close doors in the run-up to Christmas holidays.

“I believe that we are going into another lockdown… so this Christmas will be very similar to the last one,” Jakub Olbert said at one of the seasonal markets in Prague he organizes and supplies.

He said the number of vendors at other Christmas markets had already been halved by distancing requirements, hitting business.

The Czech government was due on Monday to discuss calling a state of emergency, allowing it to order medical students to help at strained hospitals where soldiers have already been dispatched in some places. The state of emergency framework could also be used for any possible lockdown later.

Under new measures, only people who have been vaccinated or who have recovered from COVID-19 in the past six months can visit restaurants, hotels, services or public events like sports games.

In large parts of Slovakia, the government ordered restaurants to close to all inhouse meals and serve-take out meals only, as well as restricting access to services for the unvaccinated.

Analysts have so far said the economic hit from the new Czech restrictions could be limited.

Vaclav Starek, president of the country’s Association of Hotels and Restaurants, said the main thing was keeping businesses running even if they need to face limitations.

The COVID-19 surge in the Czech Republic comes amid a transfer of power after an October election although both the outgoing and incoming administrations have spoken against lockdowns, especially of schools.

A demonstration against any form of lockdown was planned outside Prague Castle on Monday.

(Reporting by Jiri Skacel, Jason Hovet and Jan Lopatka; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

Czechs to bar unvaccinated from public events as COVID cases hit record

By Jan Lopatka

PRAGUE (Reuters) – The Czech Republic will ban people who have not been vaccinated against COVID-19 from access to public events and services from Monday, Prime Minister Andrej Babis said on Wednesday, and negative tests will no longer be recognized.

The restrictions, to be approved by cabinet on Thursday, come after a spike in new infections to a record 22,479 on Tuesday.

Many European countries, including Czech neighbors Germany, Austria and Slovakia, have recorded spikes in infections and have started tightening curbs.

Slovakia reported a record number of cases on Wednesday, and Hungary and Poland had the highest numbers in more than six months.

“From that time (Monday) only vaccinations and having recovered from COVID will be recognized when it comes to services and public events,” Babis said.

“People have to finally believe that COVID kills.”

The Czech Republic, with a population of 10.7 million, has had to observe relatively light restrictions in the latest COVID-19 wave, with the government pledging no school closures or lockdowns.

The government has resisted tightening rules while in transition to a new administration, but the worsening situation in hospitals has made it consider restrictions on unvaccinated people.

Hospitals reported 4,425 coronavirus patients on Tuesday, fewer than half the record highs seen in March, and 661 people in intensive care, the Health Ministry said.

The country has recorded a total of 31,709 COVID-19 deaths, with the daily count mostly over 60 in the past days.

The Czech Republic’s vaccination rate has lagged those of other countries, with 57.6% of the population fully vaccinated versus an EU average of 64.9%, according to data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

(Reporting by Jan Lopatka; Editing by Tom Hogue, Ana Nicolaci da Costa and Nick Macfie)

Poland refuses to halt disputed coal mine despite EU court penalty

By Foo Yun Chee and Anna Koper

BRUSSELS/WARSAW (Reuters) -Poland vowed to keep its disputed Turow coal mine running on Monday despite being hit with a order to pay a 500,000 euro ($585,550) daily penalty to the European Commission for defying an earlier court ruling to halt operations.

Europe’s top court, the Luxembourg-based Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), ordered the penalty on Monday.

It followed a request from the Czech Republic, which is locked in a dragging dispute with Poland over the Turow open-pit mine that sits next to their shared border. The Czech government says the mine is damaging its communities.

The mine, which produces lignite, or brown coal, has been operating for more than a century, but has recently expanded further towards the Czech border.

The penalty order could pressure Warsaw to seek a resolution with Prague after bilateral talks started in June over technical upgrades and measures to limit damage to water levels and noise and air conditions. A deal should end any legal disputes.

The Polish government said the EU court’s penalty on Monday undermined those talks, and said Turow, a major source of jobs and electricity in its region, would continue operations.

“The fine mentioned by the Court of Justice of the European Union is disproportionate to the situation and is not justified by facts,” Poland’s government said in a statement.

“It undermines the ongoing process of reaching an amicable settlement.”

The court’s order comes amid other disputes Warsaw faces with the European Union, largely over the rule of law.

The Czech Republic has taken its grievance over Turow to the Commission, which last year started legal proceedings, saying Warsaw had breached EU law when extending the mine’s life.

The country also took its case to the CJEU, and won judges’ backing for a temporary order to stop Turow’s operations until a final judgment.

“JUDICIAL ROBBERY”

When Warsaw rejected a halt, Prague asked for a daily penalty payment of 5 million euros to be levied.

The court on Monday agreed but set the fine much lower.

“Such a measure appears necessary in order to strengthen the effectiveness of the interim measures decided upon in the order of 21 May 2021 and to deter that member state from delaying bringing its conduct into line with that order,” judges said.

Prague welcomed the penalty but said it still wanted to reach an agreement in an amicable way.

Some Polish officials strongly rejected the order.

“The CJEU demands half a million daily fines from Poland for the fact that Poland did not leave its citizens without energy and did not close the mines overnight,” deputy justice minister Marcin Romanowski said on Twitter.

“It is judicial robbery and theft in broad daylight. You won’t get a cent.”

($1 = 0.8539 euros)

(Reporting by Foo Yun Chee in Brussels and Anna Koper in Warsaw; additional reporting by Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk in Warsaw and Jason Hovet in Prague; Writing by Jason Hovet; Editing by Mark Porter and Jan Harvey)

Rare tornado rips through southern Czech Republic, killing five

By Jason Hovet

HRUSKY, Czech Republic (Reuters) -Emergency workers and residents combed through wreckage in southern Czech Republic on Friday after a tornado ripped roofs off buildings and sent cars flying through the air, killing at least five people and injuring hundreds.

The tornado, which hit towns and villages around Hodonin along the Slovak and Austrian borders on Thursday evening, may have reached windspeeds above 332 kph (206 mph), a Czech Television meteorologist said.

“It was terrible what we went through,” said Lenka Petrasova in Hrusky who recounted taking shelter with her 11-year old-son after spotting the tornado minutes before it hit. “It was unbelievable. I saw a car fly, and dogs flying.”

Firefighters searched the rubble on Friday while the army sent in a team with heavy engineering equipment to deal with the aftermath of the strongest storm in the central European nation’s modern history and its first tornado since 2018.

In the village of Hrusky with a population of 1,600, a deputy mayor estimated that a third of the houses were destroyed and many needed inspections before people could safely return.

“Part of the village is levelled, only the perimeter walls without roofs, without windows remain,” Marek Babisz told news site iDNES.

“The church has no roof, it has no tower, cars were hurled at family houses, people had nowhere to hide. The village from the church down practically ceased to exist,” he said.

South Moravia regional administration chief Jan Grolich said that five people had died in the storm, and regional hospitals treated some 150 injured while others were sent elsewhere.

Emergency crews from neighboring Poland, Austria and Slovakia fanned out across the region, 270 km (167 miles) southeast of Prague, to assist.

Officials said thousands of homes had been destroyed and appealed to people not to drive to the affected areas so rescue services could work, urging them to send donations instead.

More than 100 residents of a home for the elderly in Hodonin had to be evacuated.

Prime Minister Andrej Babis cut short his attendance at the European Council summit in Brussels to visit the area where electricity and water remained shut off in a number of villages.

Speaking on his return, Babis said the government’s priority was to tap the European Union’s solidarity fund in which around 1.3 billion euros are put aside for such situations in member countries.

“The footage I saw is absolutely catastrophic,” said Babis, who also toured damaged homes in Hrusky. “We have offers of help from across Europe and many prime ministers have approached me to offer assistance.”

Czech TV reported as many as seven small towns were “massively” damaged, citing an emergency services spokesperson.

Residents on Friday surveyed the damage.

“There used to be two rooms above this,” Mikulcice resident Pavel Netopilik said pointing to the rubble surrounding his house where the upstairs floors collapsed. “Now they are not here. The ceiling collapsed.”

(Additional reporting by Robert Muller in Prague, Writing by Michael Kahn; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Philippa Fletcher)

Czech lawmakers give nod to same-sex marriage, final vote uncertain

PRAGUE (Reuters) – A same-sex marriage bill in the Czech Republic cleared an early hurdle in the lower house of parliament on Thursday, but whether it will become law is uncertain with a general election less than six months away.

The legislation has languished for three years in parliament and has split parliamentary factions as lawmakers voted both in favor and against within their parties.

Around half of European Union countries have same-sex marriage laws.

In the Czech Republic, same-sex couples can enter into registered partnerships since 2006.

Critics say that step removed some obstacles, but does not place same-sex couples on an equal footing with heterosexual couples, especially in legal issues, such as child adoptions or property rights.

The new bill, which was approved in a first reading and will head to committee debate before a final vote, amends the Civil Code to say marriage is a union of “two persons,” instead of “a man and a woman” in the current version.

Opponents seeking to dismiss the bill lacked six votes among 93 lawmakers present.

At the same session, a counter bill also got through an initial vote. It aims for the country’s Constitution to say that marriage of a man and a woman is protected by law.

As the bills have to also pass the upper chamber, the Senate, and be signed by the president to become law, it is uncertain whether there is enough time for either to make it to a final vote before the Oct. 8-9 election.

(Reporting by Robert Muller; editing by Barbara Lewis)

Czechs order Russia to cut more embassy staff in worsening spy row

By Gabrielle T├ętrault-Farber and Robert Muller

MOSCOW/PRAGUE (Reuters) -The Czech Republic on Thursday ordered Russia to remove more of its diplomatic staff from Prague in an escalation of the worst dispute between the two countries in decades. Moscow said it would swiftly respond.

The spy row flared on Saturday when Prague expelled 18 Russian staff, whom it identified as intelligence officers, saying two Russian spies accused of a nerve agent poisoning in Britain in 2018 were behind an earlier explosion at a Czech ammunition depot that killed two people.

Russia has denied the Czech accusations and on Sunday ordered out 20 Czech staff in retaliation.

Thursday’s decision, announced by Foreign Minister Jakub Kulhanek, requires Russia to match the number of Czech envoys in Moscow, meaning Russia will have to pull around 20 diplomats and dozens of other staff from Prague by the end of May.

“We will put a ceiling on the number of diplomats at the Russian embassy in Prague at the current level of our embassy in Moscow,” Kulhanek said. A ministry spokeswoman said the decision included both diplomats and other staff.

“At the moment Prague is on the path to destroying relations,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said at her weekly briefing.

“We will respond shortly.”

At a time of acute tensions in Russia’s relations with the West, the dispute has prompted NATO and the European Union to throw their support behind the Czech Republic, which is a member of both blocs.

“Allies express deep concern over the destabilizing actions Russia continues to carry out across the Euro-Atlantic area, including on alliance territory, and stand in full solidarity with the Czech Republic,” NATO’s 30 allies said in a statement.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow took a negative view of Prague’s “hysteria”.

In the past week, Moscow has also kicked out diplomats from Bulgaria, Poland and the United States in retaliation for expulsions of its own staff.

President Vladimir Putin warned foreign powers in his state of the nation speech on Wednesday not to cross Russia’s “red lines”, saying Moscow would make them regret it.

CZECHS SAY THEIR EMBASSY PARALYSED

On Wednesday the Czech Republic demanded that Moscow allow the return of all 20 staff to Moscow by Thursday or face further evictions of its diplomats from Prague, but Kulhanek said Moscow did not respond.

The Czechs say the loss of the 20 staff has effectively paralyzed the functioning of their Moscow embassy, which is much smaller than the Russian mission in Prague.

The Czechs have 5 diplomats and 19 other staff in Moscow, the Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday, while Russia has 27 diplomats and 67 other staff in Prague after the previous expulsions. That would mean the Czechs ordered a reduction of 70. The ministry did not spell out exact numbers on Thursday.

The two suspects named by Prague, known under the aliases Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov, are reportedly part of the elite Unit 29155 of Russia’s GRU military intelligence service.

Britain charged them in absentia with attempted murder after the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter with the nerve agent Novichok in the English city of Salisbury in 2018.

The Skripals survived, but a member of the public died. The Kremlin denied involvement in the incident.

(Reporting by Maxim Rodionov, Tom Balmforth and Dmitry Antonov; Robert mulle rand Jan Lopatka in Prague; additional reporting by Robin Emmott in Brussels; writing by Gabrielle T├ętrault-Farber; editing by Mark Trevelyan and Gareth Jones, William Maclean)

Czechs say Russian retaliation stronger than expected, ask EU partners for solidarity

PRAGUE (Reuters) – The Czech Republic said on Monday Russia’s eviction of 20 Czech embassy employees in response to Prague’s expulsion of 18 Russian staff was a stronger than expected reaction and the government will consider further steps.

Acting Czech Foreign Minister Jan Hamacek said he had asked fellow European Union foreign ministers for “an expression of solidarity” at a video conference on Monday.

“I expect that also on the basis of this…, we will learn about more expressions of support and it will be up to member states if they add some concrete decisions.”

The central European country ordered the Russian diplomats out on Saturday, saying it suspected Russian intelligence was involved in explosions at an ammunition depot in October and December 2014.

“The reaction (by Russia) is stronger than we had expected, it is more diplomats than the number of intelligence officers we expelled,” Hamacek told a televised news conference.

“I will meet the prime minister and discuss whether and when it will be needed to take some further steps from the Czech side.”

The Czech government has said it has reasonable suspicion that two Russian intelligence agents accused of a nerve agent poisoning in Britain in 2018 were behind the ammunition depot blasts four years before that killed two people.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry criticized Prague’s decision not to disclose all details of the investigation to Moscow, describing the affair as a blow to bilateral relations.

“This is proof that this whole story is a fabricated, dirty, disgusting fake,” RIA news agency cited Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova as saying.

The row is the biggest between Prague and Moscow since the end of decades of Soviet domination of central and eastern European countries in 1989.

The Kremlin, commenting on the allegations that Russian intelligence was involved in the explosions and on the subsequent diplomatic expulsions, called the Czech Republic’s actions “provocative and unfriendly”.

The Czech Foreign Ministry said the Russian Embassy in Prague had 129 diplomats and other personnel, and two regional consulates – about twice the size of the Czech Embassy in Moscow, which the Russian countermeasure left severely hit.

(Reporting by Jason Hovet and Jan Lopatka in Prague, Alexander Marrow in Moscow; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Czech Republic asks other countries for help with COVID-19 patients: health ministry

PRAGUE (Reuters) – The Czech Republic has asked Germany, Switzerland and Poland to take in dozens of COVID-19 patients as the situation in its own hospitals has reached a critical point, Prague’s Health Ministry said on Friday.

The country of 10.7 million has been one of the hardest-hit globally in recent weeks as many regional hospitals, overwhelmed by the inflow of coronavirus patients, had to transfer them elsewhere, in some cases taking them hundreds of miles away.

“The large number of newly infected patients has intensified pressure on the healthcare system, and the number of patients requiring hospitalization is growing,” the ministry said.

As of Friday morning, there were 8,153 COVID patients hospitalized, including 1,735 requiring intensive care, Health Ministry data showed.

“In some regions, the hospitals have exhausted their capacity and they are no longer able to provide appropriate care or to accept new patients without help from others,” Health Minister Jan Blatny said in the release.

Across the country, 13% of the overall intensive care capacity was available, while in the capital Prague, the free capacity was at 5%.

Neighboring Slovakia transferred its first coronavirus patients abroad this week as its hospitals filled with COVID-19 patients.

(Reporting by Robert Muller; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Hugh Lawson)

Czech Republic faces ‘hellish days,’ needs tighter COVID measures, PM says

PRAGUE (Reuters) – The Czech Republic must tighten measures to combat the pandemic and prevent a “catastrophe” in hospitals in the coming weeks as the country faces one of the world’s highest COVID-19 infection and death rates, Prime Minister Andrej Babis said on Wednesday.

The country reported over 15,000 new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, the highest daily tally since Jan. 6, and has the fastest spread rate in Europe, with per capita infections more than six times higher than in neighboring Germany in the last two weeks.

The number of hospital patients with COVD-19 who are in serious condition has risen to a record 1,389, leaving few spare beds in the country of 10.7 million.

Some hospitals have had to transfer out patients while the health minister has warned hospitals risk being overwhelmed in the coming weeks. The government is looking at asking Germany for help with some patients.

The country has reported a total 1.18 million cases of the virus and 19,682 deaths since the first infections nearly one year ago.

Babis said the situation was grave.

“Hellish days await us,” he said at a news conference.

The government is due to hold talks on possible further measures later on Wednesday. Babis said the health ministry would propose restrictions but declined to give details.

The country has been in some level of lockdown since October as it has battled a much harsher second and now third wave of the pandemic. Industry, though, has remained running unlike early in the pandemic when large factories shut for several weeks, hammering the economy.

Restaurants, gyms, theatres and other entertainment venues are closed while only shops selling essential goods are open.

Schools are shut except for pre-schools and the first and second grades. Babis said an aim to start returning other students to classrooms next week was not possible anymore.

(Reporting by Robert Muller and Jason Hovet; Editing by Gareth Jones and Nick Zieminski)

Overflowing Czech hospitals seek patient transfers as ‘UK variant’ rages

By Robert Muller

NACHOD, Czech Republic (Reuters) – Jan Mach had coped with his eastern Czech district hospital’s COVID-19 wards filling up – until 22 new arrivals on Monday alone were too much and he had to seek outside help.

On Wednesday, ambulances took 15 patients to hospitals as much as 230 km (140 miles) away, as closer ones were also packed.

“We have been close to our ceiling in the past 14 days, we have touched it several times,” director Mach said, adding the 339-bed hospital had 120 COVID-19 patients. “On Monday alone we took in 22 patients and that was beyond our means.”

Nachod and Trutnov, neighboring districts on the Polish border 150 km east of Prague, are among several regions that have seen incessant spread of the disease, despite a national lockdown.

A new, more infectious variant of the virus first detected in Britain is the likely reason – data from January showed between 45% and 60% of new patients were infected with the UK variant.

On Friday, the region of 550,000 reported just four free beds in COVID-19 wards and eight in high dependency and intensive care units (ICUs) treating coronavirus patients.

“We are taking in patients in a more serious condition and younger patients, I mean born 1970 and later, we had not seen that in the autumn,” Mach said.

Patients who would normally be treated in high-dependency units or ICU have had to be given therapies such as high-flow oxygen on normal wards due to the shortage of beds.

Mach spoke minutes after overseeing another ICU patient being transferred to another hospital. Staff dressed in full-body protective gear pushed the trolley past piles of equipment boxes, one of them with the hand-written label “body bags.”

The Czech Republic has ranked among the European countries worst-hit by the pandemic. Only Portugal has reported more new cases per capita in the past two weeks, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).

As of Friday morning, the country of 10.7 million had reported 17,902 COVID-19 related deaths.

Still, the parliament voted on Thursday not to extend a national state of emergency, which will lift some of current lockdown measures including the closure of shops, a loosely policed ban on gatherings and a night-time curfew.

Petr Stepanek, chief surgeon in the resuscitation unit at Nachod hospital, said the situation was “very tense”.

“It is about the ‘British’ variant,” Stepanek said. “If a majority of the population has already had it, thank God. If not, then the situation can become very dramatic.”

(Reporting by Robert Muller; Writing by Jan Lopatka; Editing by Alex Richardson)