PRAGUE (Reuters) - The Czech Republic eased restrictions on Thursday aimed at slowing the spread of the new coronavirus after a drop in new cases sparked optimism the outbreak had so far been brought under control.
The country lifted a ban on non-essential movement and travel abroad, Health Minister Adam Vojtech said after a government meeting.
The government will allow up to 10 people meet in public - instead of the current two - as of Friday, and reopen universities as of Monday.
The sharp policy turn also includes speeding up opening shops.
There was no change announced in the obligation to wear face masks in public or ban on larger public gatherings or events.
The central European country in March introduced what were at the time some of Europe’s toughest measures to prevent an uncontrolled spike in the new coronavirus epidemic.
Vojtech said the measures were key to avoid overwhelming hospitals and could now be eased, as demanded by business groups as well as some senior medical experts, although epidemiologists have warned against hasty steps.
“We have been able to manage the pandemic exceptionally well on the territory of the Czech Republic,” Vojtech told a televised news conference.
Those who travel abroad will have to present a negative coronavirus test upon return or be subject to two-week quarantine, he said. At the moment, only people visiting families or doctors and commuters are allowed to leave.
The Interior Ministry said it was also slightly relaxing a ban on entry for foreigners to allow in university students and business travellers from the EU, subject to conditions.
Industry Minister Karel Havlicek said that most shop openings would be sped up versus an earlier schedule.
“There will be 14-day intervals (in the re-opening), at the moment (the schedule) roughly copies what is done in Germany or Austria.”
The relaxation followed analysis from health ministry experts that showed the reproduction factor of the virus was around 0.7. The number indicates how many people get infected by every new infected person, and a figure below the neutral level of 1 means the epidemic is on the decline.
The country has seen the daily increase of reported cases drop to an average of 119 in the past week, less than half of levels in early April.
It has reported 7,138 cases in total, while the number of active cases fell below 5,000 on Wednesday for the first time since April 8. There have been 210 deaths.
Havlicek said the easing may be reversed if the situation worsens again.
From Monday, shops with floor space of up to 2,500 square metres will re-open, along with fitness centres or libraries.
Shopping centres and hairdressers were slated to open from May 11, while restaurants, hotels, theatres and most other services on May 25.
** For an interactive graphic: reut.rs/2XPop0F
(Graphic: New coronavirus in the Czech Republic - here)
Reporting by Jason Hovet and Robert Muller; Editing by Mark Heinrich, Alex Richardson and Diane Craft