- The government is increasingly struggling to maintain an image of competence and sensible management of the public health emergency.
- Meanwhile, the budget is off track after just the first month of the year due to the escalating costs of the pandemic.
Praised for its handling of the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic when the virus first emerged in Greece almost a year ago, the center-right government has been struggling more recently to maintain an image of coherent management of the crisis.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis announced a new, stricter lockdown in the greater Athens area, Attica, starting from 11 February. Greece has been in various forms of lockdown since November, when the second Covid-19 wave emerged, but restrictions had been relaxed over the past few weeks, allowing the opening of retail stores as well as primary and secondary schools. As of tomorrow, these will close again for at least the next three weeks. A weekend night-time curfew of 6pm has also been adopted.
The decision to tighten up restrictions in Attica was taken after a significant increase in Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations over the last few days. Athens accounts for roughly half of the coronavirus cases detected in Greece each day and the capacity for public hospitals to deal with the latest influx of patients is starting to be stretched. In the Greek capital, more than 70% of the ICU beds for Covid-19 patients are reportedly occupied, leaving less than 70 beds vacant.
Mitsotakis suggested that the additional restrictions should prevent the health system being deluged with Covid-19 patients and, in conjunction with a faster vaccine rollout, the situation should look much rosier in the coming months.
Greece is currently vaccinating an average of roughly 17,500 people a day. A total of almost 350k Greeks have received their first shot, while more than 90k have received both doses. This amounts to just short of 4.5% of the population.
The ruling center-right party is hoping that the promise of a gradual return to normality in the coming months will be enough to deflect mounting criticism and frustration with its handling of the Covid-19 crisis since last summer.
New Democracy (ND) was accused of acting too late to prevent a devastating second wave in the autumn, although Mitsotakis argued earlier this week that deaths in Greece as a proportion of the population are among the lowest in the EU. However, this period coincided with confidence in the administration’s approach starting to wane. In a recent Metron Analysis poll for Mega TV, positive sentiment towards ND fell from a high of 68% last May to 49% in January.
More recently, the government’s Covid-19 policies have come under greater scrutiny due to mixed messages from ministers, reported disagreements in the cabinet about what line to take and differing recommendations from the panel of scientific experts appointed to advise the authorities.
This was compounded by frequent tweaks to policies and even, in some cases, decisions being announced one day, such as the ban on takeout food on the weekends, only to be revoked the next. A trip by PM Mitsotakis to the Aegean island of Ikaria last weekend also attracted the condemnation of opposition parties and even some sections of the government-friendly media. Mitsotakis was pictured walking and eating with a large group of advisers and locals in an apparent breach of social distancing rules.
This criticism that followed was perhaps the strongest the Greek leader and his government have faced since coming to power in the summer of 2019. Having advertised his administration’s competence, Mitsotakis now finds himself being repeatedly questioned regarding Covid-19 policies, which is also leaving a heavy imprint on the Greek economy. The Finance Ministry has accepted that the budget is off track after just the first month of the year, while business owners are calling for more relief measures. With the government having initially estimated that support measures for the whole year would amount to EUR 7.5bn, its budget plans for 2021 have already been blown out of the water.
Key sectors, such as food service and tourism, have been heavily affected and there are concerns that they will not experience the rebound that the authorities hoped for this year. Owners of catering businesses recently clashed with the Development Minister after he appeared to dismiss claims that they face mass closures. Representatives of the sector recently protested outside his ministry and their association is threatening to sue the government over an alleged lack of sufficient economic support.
The economic destruction could provide fertile ground for main opposition party, SYRIZA, which capitalized on such discontent during Greece’s previous economic crisis, to propel its unlikely ascent to power. Given that Mitsotakis appears to be considering calling snap elections later this year, he will be concerned about the prospect of SYRIZA striking a chord with disgruntled voters. Moreover, the possibility of losing the trump card that ND has been able to play against its rival – the impression of competence – will also worry the Greek prime minister following recent developments.