Czech Republic faces bleak winter amid rising Covid cases and threat of Omicron

ITV News Europe Editor James Mates gained access to Prague's biggest hospital, where the ICU is rapidly filling with Covid patients

It looks as if it may be a bleak midwinter in the Czech Republic and much of Central Europe.

Their Covid numbers are soaring, thanks to the Delta variant plus the return of the cold weather, and if/when Omicron becomes established things may get a lot worse. Even without a new and highly transmissible variant, the hospitals are filling up and the intensive care units (ICUs) already close to capacity. In Prague, there are still some spare ICU beds, but they are rapidly being claimed by patients being transferred from elsewhere in the country.

New infections are currently running at almost double the daily rate per 100 thousand people in the UK, while – perhaps most worrying – the number of deaths per day is almost up to British levels, despite having a population barely a fifth the size.

A doctor tends to a Covid patient in an ICU in Prague Credit: ITV News

Things were bound to get worse when winter came and people returned to socialising indoors, but a low vaccination rate has definitely aggravated the situation.

Numbers are below the European average and considerable resistance, even among the elderly, is showing in the figures. At the ICU we visited in Prague, around 80% of the most seriously ill patients had chosen not to have the vaccine.

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The government has responded by declaring a 30-day state of emergency with new mask mandates and the closure the popular Christmas markets.

All nightlife, including bars and restaurants, must close by 10pm, further damaging the hospitality industry as it approaches its busiest time of year.

The intensive care doctors tried hard not to sound judgemental – as one pointed out, many people make bad health choices – but they are undoubtedly disappointed that so much of what they are dealing with is so easily preventable.

Critical care units in the country are facing great pressure in the run-up to Christmas. Credit: ITV News

In response, last weekend there was a significant protest on the streets of the capital and there are worries about widespread disobedience.

The reality governments must face is that further lockdowns are becoming increasingly undoable, politically, in much of Europe. If infection rates continue to rise, if Omicron turns out to be as bad as some pessimists are predicting, a clash may be imminent between the medically necessary and the politically possible.