Tensions rise as face masks sent to Italy from China end up in the Czech Republic

Thousands of face masks sent by China for Italy's beleaguered hospitals have ended up in the Czech Republic in an apparent cross-border imbroglio as Europe, now the epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic, faces a shortage of masks.

Tensions rise as face masks sent to Italy from China end up in the Czech Republic
Illustration photo: AFP

The problem is crucial in Italy, the country currently paying the heaviest price, with almost 5,000 deaths and its hospitals at breaking point.

But the Czech Republic, which is also bracing for a rise in infections, has tightened controls on the export and distribution of such material.

It was unclear on Sunday whether the incident amounted to a misunderstanding, a logistical error, or deliberate attempt to withhold the masks from Italy.

Italian daily la Repubblica wrote on Saturday that Czech authorities seized Chinese masks intended for Italy's hospitals under guise of a sting against traffickers, in an article titled: “How the Czech Republic sequestered thousands of masks sent from China to Italy.”

The newspaper cited as a source “a courageous Czech researcher”, Lukas Lev Cervinka, an adviser to deputy Jan Lipavsky of the anti-establishment Czech Pirate Party.

Czech police carried out an anti-trafficking operation on Tuesday, seizing 680,000 masks and ventilators from a warehouse of a private company in Lovosice, north of Prague, presenting it as a coup against illegal trafficking in medical devices.

On Friday, Interior Minister Jan Hamacek conceded on Twitter that “unfortunately, after further investigation, it turned out that a smaller part of this seizure was a Chinese donation to Italy”.

According to the Czech media, the donation from China represented just over 100,000 masks. Local authorities had announced that 380,000 of the seized masks would be distributed to local Czech hospitals.

“We are trying to understand what a Chinese donation for Italy was doing in Lovosice,” Hamacek said, adding the government was in discussions with Italy.

“I can assure that there will be no loss to Italy.”

“The Czechs did not deliberately withhold this equipment,” Foreign Minister Tomas Petricek was quoted by the Czech News Agency.

No Italian officials had reacted to the La Repubblica article by Sunday.   

The Czech Republic has recorded more than 1,000 coronavirus cases, but no deaths.

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Covid face mask rule on flights in Europe set to be eased

The mandatory EU-wide mask requirement for air travel is set to be dropped from Monday, May 16th, but airlines may still require passengers to wear masks on some or all flights

Covid face mask rule on flights in Europe set to be eased

Europe-wide facemask rules on flights are set to be ditched as early as next week in light of new recommendations from health and air safety experts.

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) dropped recommendations for mandatory mask-wearing in airports and during flights in updated Covid-19 safety measures for travel issued on Wednesday, May 11th.

The new rules are expected to be rolled out from Monday, May 16th, but airlines may still continue to require the wearing of masks on some or all of flights. And the updated health safety measures still say that wearing a face mask remains one of the best ways to protect against the transmission of the virus.

The joint EASA/ECDC statement reminded travellers that masks may still be required on flights to destinations in certain countries that still require the wearing of masks on public transport and in transport hubs.

It also recommends that vulnerable passengers should continue to wear a face mask regardless of the rules, ideally an FFP2/N95/KN95 type mask which offers a higher level of protection than a standard surgical mask.

“From next week, face masks will no longer need to be mandatory in air travel in all cases, broadly aligning with the changing requirements of national authorities across Europe for public transport,” EASA executive director Patrick Ky said in the statement. 

“For passengers and air crews, this is a big step forward in the normalisation of air travel. Passengers should however behave responsibly and respect the choices of others around them. And a passenger who is coughing and sneezing should strongly consider wearing a face mask, for the reassurance of those seated nearby.”  

ECDC director Andrea Ammon added: “The development and continuous updates to the Aviation Health Safety Protocol in light of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic have given travellers and aviation personnel better knowledge of the risks of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and its variants. 

“While risks do remain, we have seen that non-pharmaceutical interventions and vaccines have allowed our lives to begin to return to normal. 

“While mandatory mask-wearing in all situations is no longer recommended, it is important to be mindful that together with physical distancing and good hand hygiene it is one of the best methods of reducing transmission. 

“The rules and requirements of departure and destination states should be respected and applied consistently, and travel operators should take care to inform passengers of any required measures in a timely manner.”