January 18, 2022 - 1:15pm

Prague, Czech Republic

As the Omicron wave spreads through Europe, many central European countries like Germany and Austria have taken an authoritarian turn. But not all of them. The Czech Republic shares borders with Austria and Germany, but its Covid response under a new government elected in October is rapidly diverging from that of its neighbours. 

The new Czech government has pledged to undo the previous regime’s vaccine mandate for over-60s and selected professions in spite of the fact that the Czech Republic has lower levels of vaccination than Austria and Germany. Health Minister Vlastimil Válek has assured people that they “do not have to worry about sanctions” resulting from their vaccination status. 

Meanwhile, the Czech Republic has made international headlines by letting health workers infected with Covid-19 continue coming to work in cases where services could not otherwise function. Doctors and nurses who qualify for this ‘working quarantine‘ will stay in isolation when not at work but letting them leave their homes is acceptable when the health system otherwise couldn’t cope. 

A similar measure was introduced in France earlier this month, but the Czech ‘working quarantine’ is now being touted as a potential solution to wider pandemic-related labour shortages. Ministers have also discussed allowing firefighters, police officers, transport workers and others to go to work even if they have Covid. The measure has for now only been approved for healthcare professionals; but calls are growing for working quarantine to be opened up to other vital sectors too, and Health Minister Válek has refused to rule such a move out. 

The Czech Republic is therefore one of the first countries to contemplate ditching the blanket “stay home” requirement for those infected with Covid. The coming months could see Covid-positive train drivers in the Prague metro, bus drivers on the streets, and police officers on their beat. Indeed, the logic of only opening up working quarantine to healthcare workers is already being questioned as health professionals are, by definition, more likely to come into contact with vulnerable people. 

“Even if ‘working quarantine’ is expanded, most Czechs will still have to self-isolate if they catch Covid. But the limited measure could be a first step towards normalising the return of Covid-positive people to everyday life. The new Czech government has repeatedly said that the country must ‘learn to live with‘ Covid — a stance underlined by Válek’s recent statement that Covid vaccination should run along similar lines to targeted, optional flu jabs in future. 

It may seem surprising that such an attitude is being taken in a country with one of the world’s highest Covid death rates — a death rate more than twice as high as Austria’s. But a consensus seems to have been reached that ever more coercive measures must be abandoned as a pre-requisite to the end of the pandemic era. 

Such hopes may prove misguided, but economic and political considerations are newly at the forefront of the Czech virus response. The Czech economy took a battering last year as its heavy manufacturing sector suffered from supply shortages, while Prague’s tourism industry was crippled by a lack of foreign visitors. The new government does not want the start of its reign to be marked by an even greater economic calamity than has already befallen. 

Either way, there is a climate of optimism here in the Czech Republic. Hopefully it will start spreading to the rest of Europe too.

William Nattrass is a British journalist based in Prague and news editor of Expats.cz