Slovakia's health minister has resigned amid fierce criticism of his handling of the coronavirus crisis and a government decision to buy Russia's Sputnik V vaccine, as central Europe bears the brunt of a brutal third wave of the pandemic.
The Czech Republic, Montenegro, Slovakia, Hungary and Bulgaria had the world's worst death rates from Covid-19 on Friday, and Estonia and the Czech Republic had the highest rates of new cases, according to per capita figures from Our World in Data.
Slovakia's four-party ruling coalition has been in crisis since prime minister Igor Matovic made a surprise announcement last week that his government had bought Sputnik V even though it does not have European Union safety clearance.
The unexpected move and Mr Matovic’s decision to welcome the first batch of the Russian vaccines at the airport – having given no fanfare to deliveries of western-made vaccines – ignited frustration in the coalition towards the populist premier and what critics call his incompetent and chaotic management of the crisis.
"Two coalition parties conditioned their stay in government on my resignation. I do not want to create any obstacles, so I am resigning from my post," health minister Marek Krajci said on Thursday evening.
However, the dissatisfied parties were angered further by Mr Matovic’s announcement that Mr Krajci would leave “gradually” and oversee the rollout of Sputnik V, which is now being tested by Slovak scientists, and by his denunciation of their “immoral decision” to oust the health chief in a “ritual sacrifice”.
With the coalition still in turmoil, Mr Krajci then said he would step down on Friday, but it was still unclear whether the alliance would survive its latest jolt.
"It's of paramount importance, particularly in this challenging crisis, for relations to improve and trust to be restored so that people will no longer have to deal with the government's problems but the government will deal with theirs," said Veronika Remisova, head of For the People group that is part of the coalition.
Richard Sulik, leader of the Freedom and Solidarity party, said Mr Matovic's handing of the health minister's departure had thrown relations between the coalition partners "back to square one".
Slovakia has sent patients from its overstretched hospitals to neighbouring Poland, where soaring coronavirus cases have prompted the government to tighten lockdown in two badly affected regions from Monday.
Estonia imposed similar restrictions this week in response to a surge in infections, and Serbia’s pandemic crisis team said bars, restaurants and all non-essential shops should close this weekend to curb a sharp climb in cases.
Serbia has one of the highest coronavirus vaccination rates in the world and plans to start production this year of Sputnik V and China's Sinopharm vaccine, which it is now using alongside western-made vaccines.