Romanian PM fires health minister over handling of COVID-19

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BUCHAREST (Reuters) – Romanian Prime Minister Florin Citu fired his health minister on Wednesday, saying he wanted to shore up trust in state institutions as they battle the coronavirus pandemic, but potentially endangering the centre-right coalition government.

The dismissal of Health Minister Vlad Voiculescu marks the first major shift in the ruling coalition formed after a December parliamentary election between Citu’s Liberals, centre-right grouping USR-Plus – which backs the minister – and the ethnic Hungarian Party UDMR.

The three groups can count on roughly 56% of votes in parliament but their majority hinges on party leaders agreeing on governing issues.

“To be successful in fighting the pandemic I have always said there is a need for trust in state institutions,” Citu said on Wednesday after dismissing Voiculescu.

“To ensure trust in state institutions endures, I have decided to make a change at the top of the health ministry. I strongly believe in this governing coalition.”

Citu did not elaborate.

Voiculescu, 37, an economist, had pledged to make the healthcare sector and state hospitals more transparent, and has faced a backlash from politicians and politically appointed hospital managers.

Voiculescu was in the process of hiring new heads of county health insurance agencies who control billions of euros in healthcare funds. Many were chosen because of their political allegiance, observers say.

Romania has one of the European Union’s least developed healthcare infrastructures. One in four Romanians has insufficient access to essential healthcare and tens of thousands of doctors and nurses have left for other countries.

Citu said deputy Prime Minister and USR-Plus leader Dan Barna would act as interim health minister.

Voiculescu did not immediately comment. A government meeting scheduled for Wednesday has been postponed. USR-Plus lawmakers have called the dismissal an act of aggression.

Two fires and an oxygen tank malfunction at hospitals treating COVID-19 patients in November, January and earlier this week killed or injured dozens.

Even before the pandemic, Romania’s health care system had been under pressure, dogged by corruption, inefficiency and politicised management split between local and central authorities.

Some 13,360 COVID-19 patients were in hospital across Romania on Wednesday, including 1,521 in intensive care. The country has reported 1.01 million coronavirus cases and 25,605 deaths.

Reporting by Luiza Ilie; Editing by Nick Macfie

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