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Czechs tighten COVID lockdown, seek more tests for factory workers

Jiri Skacel and Robert Muller
·2-min read
The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Prague

By Jiri Skacel and Robert Muller

PRAGUE (Reuters) - The Czech Republic, battling the world's worst surge in COVID-19 infections, deployed more police officers and soldiers on Monday to help enforce new lockdown measures that seek to confine people mostly to their home districts.

Prime Minister Andrej Babis has said the healthcare system faces collapse without the new restrictions due to a record number of patients in a serious condition.

The country of 10.7 million has recorded the highest per capita infection rate in the world over the last week, according to the Our World in Data website, 11 times higher than neighbouring Germany.

Exactly a year from when the first COVID-19 case was reported, authorities deployed around 26,000 police officers and 3,800 soldiers to enforce the three-week order limiting free movement, though there were exemptions for work-related travel.

They also shut pre-schools and classes for first and second grade pupils. Other pupils were already learning from home.

"People did not want to keep the rules before today and that is why COVID is here. Maybe this will help," Pavel Novotny, a train conductor, said outside a largely empty station in Prague.

FACTORIES STAY OPEN, MUST TEST

Babis has seen his popularity dented before an October election and faces criticism that the new measures do not go far enough as factories remain open. He is balancing this with public frustration over lockdowns that have seen non-essential shops, restaurants and entertainment largely shut since October.

Babis has rejected calls to shut industry, saying this would cause job losses.

Instead, the government approved on Monday mandatory COVID tests for companies with at least 50 employees in a move that aims to reach about 2 million workers in the next two weeks.

Deputy Prime Minister Jan Hamacek, leader of the junior government party the Social Democrats, said without controls on companies "we will end up exactly where we are now" in a month.

The country enacted tough measures a year ago when the pandemic started, and the biggest manufacturers idled then for several weeks, costing the economy dear.

New, more contagious variants of the virus have added to the latest surge, and a slow vaccine rollout is not helping.

The death toll has doubled since mid-December to reach 20,469.

Robin Sin, a regional vaccination coordinator and crisis medicine expert, said missteps such as opening shops for a time before Christmas added to the country's woes.

Shutting some non-critical industry for a while could help, Sin said, adding: "Limiting movement between districts is completely insufficient."

(Reporting by Jiri Skacel and Robert Muller, writing by Jason Hovet; editing by Gareth Jones)