Health Minister to be dismissed over vaccine plan differences

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Latvian Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš said January 5 he would demand the resignation of Health Minister Ilze Viņķele on Thursday as government communications took a bizarre turn in cyberspace.

Journalists and members of the public were left goggle-eyed as they coped with two simultaneous online press briefings Tuesday afternoon following rumors in the morning that Viņķele would be sacked over dissatisfaction with her vaccination plan.

In one briefing, Viņķele herself outlined the Health Ministry's vaccination plans, while at exactly the same time Prime Minister Kariņš was announcing that he had lost confidence in his minister, due to the delay in presenting the vaccination plan she was presenting. He admitted not having read the plan himself, even as it was being presented in the parallel press conference.

Effectively, Viņķele was deemed to have run out of time.

"I have been patiently waiting for three government meetings, for this [vaccination] plan, this document," said Kariņš, emphasizing that there is currently "nothing more important than the vaccination plan" and explaining that the detailed vaccination plan was not the same as the government's overall anti-Covid strategy.

"Latvia has been fighting the pandemic caused by Covid-19 for a long time, and we are at a crucial moment in this fight. This makes it clear that the only way to lift restrictions, return to a normal life and resume purposeful development is to immunize society as quickly as possible. It must be based on a clear and publicly understandable plan for the availability of vaccines. Ever since the beginning of the second wave of the pandemic, we have been struggling with the consequences of not having a clear and comprehensible plan of action when we could act quickly and proactively. Interpretation and misinformation have consequences, and we all as a society are already suffering from it. We cannot continue that way,” Kariņš told the media.

However, getting rid of Viņķele, whose own press conference seemed an attempt to show that a plan was indeed ready and had the backing of health professionals, will take several days as under the coalition agreement, a 48-hour notice of resignation must be given. Kariņš promised to sign a resignation request Thursday and said Viņķele's Development/For! party colleague, Minister of Defense Artis Pabriks will hold the position of interim Minister of Health until a new candidate is approved by the party.

"I invite Development/For! to nominate a new, energetic and capable minister," Kariņš said. 

However, on Twitter Pabriks said he thought the Prime Minister should fill in himself as Health Minister, leaving it open as to who will actually fill what is certainly the most important ministerial portfolio in the middle of a pandemic.

Viņķele herself signalled she would comply with the request to resign, while claiming that the vaccination plan that had been prepared was even more detailed than those adopted by Estonia and Germany, and would result in around 50,000 vaccinations per week from January until March, increasing to 100,000 vaccinations per week from April to June. Thus by late June or early July the goal of 60% coverage of the population would be achieved and by the year end 82% of residents would be vaccinated.

In subsequent comments online, the PM and the Minister appeared at odds over whether or not Latvia had missed an opportunity to obtain additional doses of vaccine.


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