Slovakia follows Austria into lockdown amid record surge in COVID cases
By Robert Muller and Jason Hovet
PRAGUE (Reuters) – Slovakia’s government followed the example of neighbouring Austria on Wednesday and ordered a two-week lockdown to quell the world’s fastest rise in COVID-19 cases as the number of people sick in hospital reached a critical level and vaccination levels remain low.
Restaurants and non-essential shops will close as part of the measures and movement will be limited to trips for essential shopping, work, school or medical visits, along with walks in nature, government officials said.
Slovakia on Tuesday registered more than 10,000 new daily infections for the first time since the pandemic started, while hospitalisations hit what the Health Ministry called a “critical point” that meant limiting other care and possibly asking for foreign assistance.
“The situation is serious,” Prime Minister Eduard Heger said. “We got here because the (existing) measures were not observed.”
Adjusted for population size, Slovakia is experiencing the world’s fastest rise in infections, according to Our World in Data, topping a list currently led by other European countries.
The neighbouring Czech Republic and Hungary both registered a record daily rise in cases on Tuesday, while Austria also implemented a total lockdown this week, shutting non-essential shops, bars and cafes for at least 10 days.
Slovakia’s decision to return to a lockdown comes after the government already slapped new restrictions on unvaccinated people this week in a bid to push up inoculations. Before that, the country had been gradually tightening restrictions in regions hard-hit as cases have jumped over the past month.
Heger said measures would be assessed after 10 days and any loosening would only be for the vaccinated.
Less than 50% of people in the country of 5.5 million are fully vaccinated, the third-lowest rate in the European Union. The unvaccinated count for the majority of cases and hospitalisations.
President Zuzana Caputova made an emotional plea on Tuesday, saying the country was losing its fight with COVID-19 and needed a lockdown as healthcare staff became overworked.
The number of hospitalised patients has reached 3,200, approaching peaks of around 3,800 seen in the last wave of the pandemic.
Dagmar Sudekova, deputy director of the Zilina hospital in one of the harder hit regions, told the state broadcaster RTVS on Tuesday evening more than 80% of patients were unvaccinated and the hospital’s ventilation and high-flow oxygen beds were full.
“We just manage with the help of neighbouring hospitals,” she said.
(Reporting by Robert Muller and Jason Hovet; Editing by Kirsten Donovan and Hugh Lawson)