The Czech prime minister has apologised five times as his country suffers one of the world’s worst infection rates after holding off from imposing a second lockdown.
For weeks Prime Minister Andrej Babis refused to reintroduce restrictions in order to protect the economy, leading to the virus spreading out of control.
The nation with a population of 10 million now has more cases per 100,000 people than any major country and has Europe’s fastest growth in new coronavirus infections.
New daily cases reached a record high of 15,000 on Wednesday.
During the first wave, the Czech Republic was one of the first countries to take early action, imposing a lockdown and making masks compulsory before many Western nations were even considering the idea.
But it was now a victim of its own success after becoming complacent, the PM said.
“We certainly made mistakes when we thought at the end of May, when we finished the reopening, that we had managed it,” he said.
Mr Babis repeatedly apologised when addressing his country at a press conference.
“I am sorry for the new restrictions that will impact lives of business owners, citizens, employees. I am also sorry for having de facto ruled out the possibility of this happening because I could not imagine that this would happen,” Mr Babis said.
The situation is now so bad the United States National Guard is sending 28 doctors as the health system buckles while the European Union has offered 30 ventilators.
The Czech government has ordered most shops and services to close and sought to limit movement to essential trips, making masks compulsory again.
Health Minister Roman Prymula said the Czech health system would soon reach the limits of its capacity, despite massive increases in the number of beds and curbs on non-essential care.
Europe’s second wave
The Czech Republic’s crisis comes as Europe’s hospital systems are at risk of buckling as the continent is again at the centre of the global pandemic.
Belgium’s health minister described a “tsunami” as infections surge relentlessly, with authorities in countries from Poland to Portugal expressing mounting alarm at the renewed crisis.
To complicate Europe’s situation, widespread coronavirus fatigue and the economic impact have eroded public support for lockdowns.
Unwilling to shut down their countries again, governments have sought less drastic measures to limit public gatherings and balance the need to keep their economies turning with holding back the pandemic.
According to data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), Europe has registered more than 5 million cases and 200,000 deaths, with new cases beginning to spike sharply from the end of September.
While well below levels at the peak of the crisis six months ago, COVID-19 hospital admissions and occupancy are again high – defined as at least 25 per cent of the peak of the pandemic – or rising in 20 countries, its latest weekly summary said last week.
The capacity of hospitals to handle a wave of coronavirus patients, as well as people suffering from cancer, heart disease and other serious conditions, is still vulnerable.
Dutch health authorities said that if the number of COVID-19 patients in hospital wards continues to grow, three-quarters of regular care may have to be scrapped by the end of November, and there were similar warnings from Czech authorities.
“We have hit a wall on clinical beds,” said Wouter van der Horst, spokesman for the Dutch hospital association NVZ.
Authorities in Lombardy, the Italian region at the centre of the earlier wave, on Wednesday ordered the reopening of special temporary intensive care units set up in Milan and Bergamo that were shut down as case numbers receded.
Already, a number of regional health authorities in Germany, one of the countries that dealt with the first wave most effectively, have agreed to take in intensive care patients from other countries.
On Wednesday, authorities in Ireland, where the five-day case average has tripled since the start of October, said there were no longer enough officials to keep its contact-tracing system working.