Bulgaria started requiring residents to show proof of vaccination to eat in restaurants, go to movies and enter malls from Thursday, as its government grapples with a spate of cases and a reluctance to vaccinate.
The country has the lowest vaccination rate of any member of the European Union, with about a quarter fully vaccinated adults. On Tuesday, he reported a record number of new daily cases and 200 coronavirus-related deaths.
“The situation is critical,” Acting Health Minister Dr Stoycho Katsarov said in a television interview on Wednesday. “The nation is facing enormous difficulties and most people cannot even measure the extent of the calamity.”
He announced the tightening of restrictions on Tuesday, after weeks of calls from public health officials for tougher measures.
People in Bulgaria who choose not to be vaccinated may show a recent negative test or proof of recovery from Covid-19 to enter indoor places, and no proof is required to enter pharmacies, banks, public transport or grocery stores.
The measures also apply to employees of hospitals and nursing homes, who must present a “green pass” to work.
As the number of new reported cases rises, already overcrowded hospitals are struggling to cope with the surge in patient numbers. Schools in several districts have switched to e-learning.
In the past two weeks, Bulgaria has recorded one of the highest death rates of any country in the European Union, according to the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control. Of the coronavirus deaths in the past 24 hours, 94% were among the unvaccinated.
While vaccines are widely available, many Bulgarians have resisted vaccination due to widespread misinformation and mistrust of the authorities. Public health efforts have also been hampered by months of political instability, which has left political parties reluctant to introduce vaccination mandates or other unpopular measures.
Unlike Western Europe, very few political leaders have been publicly vaccinated. Boiko Borisov, prime minister until spring, did not receive his first blow until the end of July.
Some experts said the government had waited too long to introduce more stringent restrictions. “New measures came too late,” said Dr Radka Argirova, head of the Bulgarian Association of Virology. “We should have toughened the measures months ago.”
Shortly after the announcement of the new measures, several vaccination centers in the capital Sofia saw increased demand for vaccines.
But there were also manifestations of resistance. On Wednesday, several hundred supporters of two small far-right parties marched in the capital, Sofia, to protest the new rules.