PRAGUE (Reuters) - Czechs received a first batch of medical equipment from China needed to curb the spread of the coronavirus as doctors, nurses and care home workers complain of shortages of respirators and people sew masks at home.
Following a highly publicised hunt for supplies amid mounting criticism from local authorities and hospitals, government officials greeted a flight from Shanghai carrying 1.1 million FFP-2 level respirators at Prague's Vaclav Havel Airport.
Respirators have been in acute demand in some hospitals, where even front-line staff didn't have sufficient supplies, news website http://www.novinky.cz reported earlier this week.
The shipment is the first in a series of direct air deliveries from China which should continue over the next at least six weeks, Interior Minister Jan Hamacek said.
The virus was first identified in December in the central Chinese province of Hubei.
"There are a number of flights ahead of us. We have built an air-bridge," Hamacek said at a televised news conference staged on tarmac in front of the plane.
On Saturday, the world's biggest cargo plane, Antonov An-124, was expected to bring 100 tonnes of masks, respirators and other equipment, Hamacek said.
"I am convinced that after Saturday, we will have the worst behind us in terms of protective gear, and that we have a system how to deliver them to the Czech Republic regularly," he said.
The shipment has a political dimension. Hamacek thanked all involved, including China's ambassador who attended the arrival - a sign of improvement in relations between the two countries that turned sour in recent months despite the pro-China leanings of President Milos Zeman.
China's ambassador had faced sharp criticism from other Czech leaders for putting pressure on the country not to promote ties with self-ruled Taiwan, which Beijing considers sovereign territory. Opposition parties said that China was using the medical deliveries to improve its image.
The government has ordered people to cover their mouths and noses in public as of Thursday. People have resorted to making masks at home because they are not available in stores or from the authorities. [L8N2BB5NL]
The country has reported 774 cases of coronavirus infections with no deaths so far. Like other EU countries, the Czech Republic has shut borders and virtually locked the nation down - apart from commuting to work and essential shopping.
Mainland China's tally of infections stands at 80,967, with the death toll at 3,248 by Thursday.
(Reporting by Robert Muller; editing by Nick Macfie)