White protective sterile face masks via iStock / mihalec

Czech bus with 110,000 face masks leaving for Italy, will return with stranded Czechs

A Czech bus with 110,000 face masks has left the Czech Republic for Italy with 43 Italians aboard. The bus will transport stranded Czech citizens back home. The masks are to compensate for ones that were seized in error last week.

“I am glad that we have sent to Italy a replacement for the Chinese gift, which found itself in the Czech Republic for unknown reasons — 110,000 masks. As an apology, we also agreed with the Italian Embassy to transport 41 Italians back to their homeland. The evacuation bus will return with 34 Czechs tomorrow,” Czech Foreign Minister Tomáš Petříček said on Twitter.

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The Czech Foreign Ministry confirmed that the masks are on the way to Rome. “The bus departed from Prague around 10 am this morning with 110,000 masks on board along with 41 Italian citizens who wanted to go home but couldn’t find a way. It should arrive in Rome this evening. Our Embassy will store the material until tomorrow morning, and they, the Italian MFA (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) or other authorities will accept this gift/apology. The reason why the masks bound from China for Italy ended up in Lovosice is still under investigation, but we didn’t want to wait taking into consideration the seriousness of the situation,” the Foreign Ministry said.

When the Czech government seized a 680,000 face masks and 28,000 respirators from a warehouse in Lovosice in the Ústí nad Labem on  March 18, they didn’t realize that almost 110,000 of the masks were a separate consignment that was a gift from the Red Cross of the Qingtian county in the Zhejiang Province to the fellow Chinese people in Italy.

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The rest of the face masks and respirators were allegedly owned by speculators trying to sell them at high above the market value. They have been divided between Prague and the Ústí nad Labem region.

masks for italy
A bus is loaded with a shipment of 110,000 face masks for Italy / via Twitter

Once the error was was discovered, the Czech government promised to correct it, and started discussions with representatives from Italy and China. “Customs officers in Lovosice seized hundreds of thousands of masks, unfortunately the subsequent investigation revealed that a minor part of them was a Chinese gift to Italy. … We will communicate with both countries and make sure that Italy will not lose anything,” Czech Interior Minister Jan Hamáček said on Twitter on March 20.

While the investigation into the masks is ongoing, the Czech government decided to act right away on the matter. “The Czech Republic did not wait for the investigation to end and sent the replacement immediately in view of the situation. In this case, we are in touch with the Italian Foreign Ministry and the Italian Embassy in Prague,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zuzana Štíchová said.

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The March 18 police raid in Lovosice was aimed at speculators. The firm was supposed to deliver masks and respirators to healthcare personnel, but was attempting to raise the price at the very last moment to abuse the crisis.

There has been a severe shortage of masks and respirators and other protective equipment in the Czech Republic, but it is slowly getting better as large shipments arrive.

On March 22, an Antonov An-124 Ruslan airlift aircraft from Shenzhen, China — with 117 tons of equipment including 2 million respirators, 5 million face masks, 80,000 protective goggles, 120,000 protective suits and tens of thousands of test kits — arrived in Prague. Another large consignment is planned for this month.

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