PRAGUE (AP) – Police and military forces in the Czech Republic set up 500 checkpoints across the country as one of the European Union’s hardest-hit nations marked the first anniversary of its coronavirus outbreak on Monday by significantly limiting free movement.
Some 30,000 officers were involved in an unprecedented operation to enforce a tight new restriction that bans people from traveling to other counties unless they go to work or have to take care of relatives.
It’s part of a series of measures that took effect Monday as the Central European nation seeks to slow down the spread of a highly contagious virus variant first found in Britain.
Prime Minister Andrej Babis said the measure´s goal was to prevent the country’s hospitals from collapsing under the stress of caring for COVID-19 patients.
Amid a surge of infections from the U.K. variant, of the 7,049 COVID-19 patients in Czech hospitals on Sunday, 1,507 needed intensive care. Both the numbers are close to the records set earlier last week.
Since the Czech Republic registered the first three people infected with coronavirus on March 1 last year, the nation of 10.7 million has see over 1.24 million confirmed cases with 20,469 deaths.
The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases has risen from 70.75 new cases per 100,000 people on Feb. 14 to 109.82 per 100,000 people on Sunday, the worst per-capita rate in the world, according to Johns Hopkins University.
As of Monday, people in the Czech Republic who go out for exercise should not leave their municipality. Nursery schools and schools for children with disabilities were also closed while only stores selling essential goods remain open.
Experts, however, say the measures don´t go far enough to stop the virus.
“I consider the most important measures those that haven´t been applied,” biochemist Jan Trnka told the Czech Public radio. “That is to limit contacts at work, especially in the industry.”
Only on Monday did the Czech government start to require mass testing of employees on a voluntary basis. That was expected to become mandatory Friday in companies with more than 250 workers.
Industry and Trade Minister Karel Havlicek has rejected calls to close at least some plants and factories as “unrealistic.”
Meanwhile, the country is speeding up its vaccination program with general practitioners joining inoculation centers. Over 650,000 vaccine doses have been given out. Babis said 1 million vaccine shots were expected to arrive through an EU program in March and another 2.6 million in April.
In a sign of solidarity, three states in neighboring Germany have sent the Czech Republic 15,000 dozes of the AstraZeneca vaccine to try to control contagion at the border.
Babis and pro-Russian President Milos Zeman also said they would use Russia´s Sputnik V vaccine even if it´s not approved by the European Medicines Agency.