Virus hitting hard in Central and Eastern European countries that rode out first wave

Matthew Day
·8 min read
A child is tested at a coronavirus testing site at the Solec Hospital in Warsaw, Poland - AP
A child is tested at a coronavirus testing site at the Solec Hospital in Warsaw, Poland - AP

Poland announced sweeping new anti-Covid restrictions on Friday as the number of virus infections surged dramatically across Central and Eastern Europe.

Ministers in the European Union's largest ex-Communist state tightened the rules in response to an infections spike that threatens to overwhelm public health care.

There are fears that having avoided the worst of Europe's first wave of infections in the Spring, Poland and other neighbouring European nations have allowed complacency to prevail in recent months.

Mateusz Morawiecki, the Polish prime minister, said that  new restrictions would come into place from Saturday. They include closing bars, allowing only takeaway services at restaurants, and making most schools teach online.

He also warned of a “full scale lockdown” for Poland's 38 million people, including closing borders, if the virus was not brought under control.

Poland reported 13,632 positive test results on Thursday, a new record, with 10,788 people hospitalised by the illness.

The country has some 18,000 hospital beds available, but with up to 25,000 positive rest results a day now predicted, health professionals are warning that severe staff shortages could undermine levels of care.

Poland announced sweeping new anti-Covid restrictions on Friday as the number of virus infections surged dramatically across Eastern Europe. Ministers in the European Union's largest ex-Communist state tightened the rules in response to an infections spike that threatens to overwhelm public health care. There are fears that having avoided the worst of Europe's first wave of infections in the Spring, Poland and other eastern European nations have allowed complacency to prevail in recent months. Mateusz Morawiecki, the Polish prime minister, said that new restrictions would come into place from Saturday. They include closing bars, allowing only takeaway services at restaurants, and making most schools teach online. He also warned of a “full scale lockdown” for Poland's 38 million people, including closing borders, if the virus was not brought under control. Poland reported 13,632 positive test results on Thursday, a new record, with 10,788 people hospitalised by the illness. The country has some 18,000 hospital beds available, but with up to 25,000 positive rest results a day now predicted, health professionals are warning that severe staff shortages could undermine levels of care. The rapid increase in cases has shocked many in Poland - which, like many Eastern European nations, was swift to impose harsh measures to curb the virus's spread back in the Spring. Across the region, border restrictions and school closures were introduced with much less hesitation than in Western Europe. While that averted the major spikes seen in the likes of Italy, a subsequent relaxation of rules during the summer has now caught officials off-guard. Dr Jiří Černý, a virologist at the Faculty of Tropical AgriSciences at Czech University of Life Sciences in Prague, told The Telegraph: "We were very successful during the first wave. I think that people did not understand properly that we did not get rid of the virus completely, and that the virus causes a deadly disease." With many Eastern European health-workers taking better-paid jobs in Western Europe, there are concerns that there are simply not enough medical professionals to cope with a serious surge in cases. The virus surge first showed signs of gathering pace in Eastern Europe last month. It has been accompanied by claims of political incompetence. In the Czech Republic, the health minister, Roman Prymula, faced calls to resign after he was photographed leaving a Prague restaurant without a facemask on. Critics said that under restrictions backed by Mr Prymula - himself a leading epidemiologist - the restaurant should have been closed. Local reports say it had been open discreetly to "high profile" guests. The Czech Republic is currently the centre of Europe's biggest surge in new Covid cases. It registered 14,151 new coronavirus cases on Thursday, according to the health ministry, and the Czech prime minister Andrej Babis, said he regretted ruling out tougher lockdown measures earlier. “I apologise even for the fact that I ruled out this option (lockdown measures) in the past because I was not able to imagine it might happen,” he said. In August, as infections began to grow, Mr Babis opposed a plan by the country's then health minister, Adam Vojtěch, to toughen restrictions, including mandatory face masks at schools. Mr Vojtěch then resigned. Hynek Pikhart, Professor of Epidemiology and Medical Statistics at University College London, said: “I believe Prime Minister Babis followed public opinion polls that were strongly against restrictions or face masks, and the government relaxed all the measures over the summer. Unfortunately, some medical doctors and university academics well known to the public (but not experts in public health) were encouraging the public in the opinion that Covid is not dangerous and all restrictions should be lifted." The President of the Czech Republic's Medical Association, Milan Kubek, called upon Czech doctors working abroad to "help their former colleagues in our hospitals". More than 1,200 Czech doctors currently working Britain, while around 1,000 work in Germany - some of them commuting over the border daily. Around 11,000 healthworkers in the Czech Republic have tested positive for coronavirus. One care home worker, who did not want to be named, told The Telegraph: "It's a catastrophe. At the moment, I try not to follow the daily Covid numbers... the problem is not the capacity of the hospitals, it's the capacity of staff. Small hospitals are hardly making it." Additional reporting by Klára Jiřičná in Prague

The rapid increase in cases has shocked many in Poland - which, like many Central and Eastern European nations, was swift to impose harsh measures to curb the virus's spread back in the Spring. Across the region, border restrictions and school closures were introduced with much less hesitation than in Western Europe.

While that averted the major spikes seen in the likes of Italy, a subsequent relaxation of rules during the summer has now caught officials off-guard.

Dr Jiří Černý, a virologist at the Faculty of Tropical AgriSciences at Czech University of Life Sciences in Prague, told The Telegraph: "We were very successful during the first wave. I think that people did not understand properly that we did not get rid of the virus completely, and that the virus causes a deadly disease."  

With many health-workers taking better-paid jobs in Western Europe, there are concerns that there are simply not enough medical professionals to cope with a serious surge in cases.

The virus surge first showed signs of gathering pace in Eastern Europe last month. It has been accompanied by claims of political incompetence. 

In the Czech Republic, the health minister, Roman Prymula, faced calls to resign after he was photographed leaving a Prague restaurant without a face mask on.

Critics said that under restrictions backed by Mr Prymula - himself a leading epidemiologist - the restaurant should have been closed. Local reports say it had been open discreetly to "high profile" guests.  

The Czech Republic is currently the centre of Europe's biggest surge in new Covid cases. It registered 14,151 new coronavirus cases on Thursday,  according to the health ministry, and the Czech prime minister Andrej Babis, said he regretted ruling out tougher lockdown measures earlier.  

  “I apologise even for the fact that I ruled out this option (lockdown measures) in the past because I was not able to imagine it might happen,” he said.

In August, as infections began to grow, Mr Babis opposed a plan by the country's then health minister, Adam Vojtěch, to toughen restrictions, including mandatory face masks at schools. Mr Vojtěch then resigned.

A copy of Czech daily Blesk showing pictures of Czech Health Minister Roman Prymula leaving a restaurant in Prague - Shutterstock
A copy of Czech daily Blesk showing pictures of Czech Health Minister Roman Prymula leaving a restaurant in Prague - Shutterstock

Hynek Pikhart, Professor of Epidemiology and Medical Statistics at University College London, said: “I believe Prime Minister Babis followed public opinion polls that were strongly against restrictions or face masks, and the government relaxed all the measures over the summer. Unfortunately, some medical doctors and university academics well known to the public (but not experts in public health) were encouraging the public in the opinion that Covid is not dangerous and all restrictions should be lifted."

The President of the Czech Republic's Medical Association, Milan Kubek, called upon Czech doctors working abroad to "help their former colleagues in our hospitals".

More than 1,200 Czech doctors currently working Britain, while around 1,000 work in Germany - some of them commuting over the border daily.

Around 11,000 healthworkers in the Czech Republic have tested positive for coronavirus.

One care home worker, who did not want to be named, told The Telegraph: "It's a catastrophe. At the moment, I try not to follow the daily Covid numbers... the problem is not the capacity of the hospitals, it's the capacity of staff. Small hospitals are hardly making it." 

Additional reporting by Klára Jiřičná in Prague