Governments in Slovakia and the Czech Republic are under growing pressure as their health systems struggle to cope with another surge in Covid-19 cases and the rapid spread of the more contagious British strain of the virus.
Slovakia now has the world’s highest per capita fatality rate from Covid-19, with a rolling daily average over the week to Tuesday of 17.8 deaths per million people according to Our World In Data, compared to 6.6 in Ireland and 9.2 in the UK.
Over the same period, neighbouring Czech Republic recorded a rolling average of 727 new coronavirus cases per million people per day – the worst such rate in the European Union – and far higher than Ireland on 179 or the UK on 182.
The Slovak government tightened border controls on Wednesday and asked other EU states to send 10 doctors and 25 nurses to reinforce the country’s intensive care staff.
Slovakia made headlines last November for testing about two thirds of its 5.4 million people for coronavirus over one weekend. Testing levels remain high, but experts say the resultant data is being poorly used, the country’s tracing system is not working and too much reliance is placed on quick and cheap antigen tests rather than more accurate but more expensive PCR kits.
Critics of populist prime minister Igor Matovic say the pandemic has exposed his cabinet’s inexperience, and MP Miroslav Kollar, who is also mayor of the town of Hlohovec, quit the ruling coalition in protest on Wednesday.
“As mayor I’ll continue to do my utmost to protect the inhabitants of our town,” he said. “However, as deputy I can no longer legitimise the chaotic and incompetent rule of Igor Matovic, who even today offers only excuses . . . instead of vigorous and competent political leadership.”
Mr Matovic said that in light of “catastrophic delays” in supplies of Covid-19 vaccines via the EU, Slovakia should buy Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, which neighbouring Hungary is using despite it not being approved by EU regulators.
“I am in favour. It is a great vaccine with great efficiency,” he declared.
The Czech Republic recorded 12,486 new Covid-19 cases on Tuesday, the biggest daily rise in more than a month, and 6,171 sufferers are being treated in hospital, with more of them in intensive care than at any time since November.
Three severely affected Czech counties are under strict lockdown, and health minister Jan Blatny warned on Wednesday that “if together we don’t prevent further spread at this level, then within two or three weeks the whole country will likely be in the same situation”.
The Czech government struck a last-minute deal with regional governors to extend a state of emergency and maintain lockdown measures on Sunday, after parliament rejected the move in protest at prime minister Andrej Babis’s handling of the pandemic.