Bulgaria’s President attempts damage control over Covid-19 measures controversy

Bulgarian President Roumen Radev held an emergency meeting on October 24 of the caretaker cabinet he appointed, to respond to mounting controversy about the amended measures that went into effect three days earlier to contain the spread of Covid-19.

The order issued by caretaker Health Minister Stoicho Katsarov provides for admission to indoor public places on showing a “green certificate”, either proving vaccination against Covid-19, having undergone the disease or having a negative test.

The move has been roundly criticised for the short time frame before it took effect and the inconsistencies and gaps in the measures, and for being belated in the face of Bulgaria’s worsening Covid-19 crisis.

As of October 24, eighteen out of 28 districts are Covid-19 dark red zones, meaning a morbidity rate of 500 or more out of 100 000 population. Four districts – Sofia city, Vidin, Montana and Pernik – are above the 1000-mark.

The problems have been compounded by the health information system’s website repeatedly going offline, causing delays in the process of administering vaccines and issuing certificates. The authorities have blamed this on malicious online attacks.

Amid the difficulties, Katsarov responded by ordering a “grace period” up to and including Sunday during which no fines should be issued for breaching the new rules.

Bulgarian television reports have depicted non-compliance with the rules, including people being admitted to public places such as shopping malls, restaurants and night clubs without being checked. A report by Nova Televizia on October 23 showed a reporter gaining admission to malls and other places using someone else’s vaccination certificate. Earlier, the manager of a Plovdiv mall told local media that staff had no legal right to demand to see someone’s identity document to confirm that the “green certificate” was theirs.

Against the background of Bulgaria’s November presidential and early parliamentary elections, the issue also has been seized on by political parties.

Boiko Borissov’s GERB-UDF coalition, which months ago was slammed by the caretaker Health Minister for its handling of the Covid-19 situation, has accused the caretaker administration of producing chaos. At the weekend, Borissov said that Katsarov’s move to allow people to get a vaccination certificate after only a single dose (with the certificate valid to a month until a second dose) was tantamount to allowing someone who had only passed a theoretical test to drive a car.

Borissov has used the controversy to paint Radev, who appointed Katsarov, as ultimately responsible for Bulgaria’s high Covid-19 death toll.

The Bulgarian Socialist Party, which has declared support for Radev’s re-election, has called on Katsarov to resign.

In an interview on October 24 with Nova TV, BSP leader Kornelia Ninova said that Katsarov’s mistakes were harming Radev. “As we criticised Borissov during the first crises, when we were first in terms of mortality, so now. You cannot criticise for one situation, but then be silent because it is a matter of a caretaker minister,” she said.

Political commentators have said that the controversy about the new measures could cause some damage to Radev’s re-election chances.

At the October 24 meeting, Radev reiterated the support he stated earlier in the week for the new measures, saying that the “closure of the country is a last resort”.

“For me, the life of the people is more important than the election result, which I will bear with humility,” Radev said. “In spite of the high price, I supported your decision because it gives freedom of choice and leaves economic life open.”

Radev said that the way the measures had been introduced had been severely criticised.

“Not enough time was given to adapt these measures. It is understandable that this causes stress and indignation in people,” he said.

Radev said that the return of young children to classrooms should be a priority.

In terms of the caretaker government’s plan adopted in July to deal with the Covid-19 crisis, in areas where the morbidity rate is above 750 per 100 000 population, schools should go over to distance learning. This happened in several municipalities, including Sofia, this week, again with short notice, causing ire among parents of primary school children who had to scramble to find ways to look after them at home.

Radev also called for tests to be really free of charge and not, as people have complained, having to pay between 15 and 40 leva for tests. Katsarov has been lampooned on social networks for his confusing statement about rapid tests costing 10 leva and being free of charge (he appeared to be trying to make a distinction between the costs of the tests themselves and of sampling, but this remained unclear).

Radev added that he wanted the cabinet to come up with a solution for people who have high levels of antibodies, but are not eligible for certificates on the basis of this.

Katsarov told the meeting that he thought that the return of children to classrooms should be done in stages, starting with those in grades one to four.

“I will not allow messing in the noses of children, there are tests with saliva, lollipops, if parents agree with such an approach, this is the way. If it is established that a child has a positive test, then the whole class will not have to be quarantined, because this child will be checked at the entrance and will not have contact with the other children,” Katsarov said.

Caretaker Education Minister Nikolai Denkov said that there was no consensus among parents on this topic. “I hope common sense prevails. This is a technique that is used all over the world,” he said.

Caretaker Finance Minister Valeri Belchev said that funding would be found to provide tests in schools.

Katsarov said that “intensified control” over the observance of the new anti-epidemic measures would begin on October 25.

Most likely, joint groups would be established involving the Interior Ministry, regional health inspectorates, Bulgarian Food Safety Agency and others, he said.

For the rest of The Sofia Globe’s continuing coverage of the Covid-19 situation in Bulgaria, please click here.

The Sofia Globe’s coverage of the Covid-19 situation in Bulgaria is supported by the Embassies of Switzerland and Finland.

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The Sofia Globe staff

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