Shopping Malls Closure Extended; Some Schools to Reopen; Pushback Over Proposed Fines Law
Covid-19 has continued to dominate the news headlines in Poland over the past week, but while we’ll bring you an update on the latest situation including an announcement by the Health Minister that most of the additional restrictions introduced after Christmas are to be extended at least to the end of the month, we’ll also focus on some other interesting developments.
The main news stories over the past week have included:
· Onsite schooling for grade 1 to 3 elementary pupils is to resume in Poland from next Monday but the rest of the additional restrictions are extended
· Porozumienie opposes a controversial proposed new fines law in a further example of friction within the Zjednoczona Prawica ruling bloc
· Outgoing U.S. Ambassador, Georgette Mosbacher, receives a State award and
· Poland highlights its role in the successful reintroduction of European bison.
On Monday Health Minister, Adam Niedzielski, announced that most of the additional Coronavirus-related restrictions initially introduced for the December 28th to January 17th period would be extended at least until January 31st, as he said the virus was persisting, albeit it did appear to have moderated. These measures include the closure of retail outlets deemed non-essential, ski resorts and hotels. However, in person schooling for grade 1 to 3 elementary pupils will be resumed from next Monday. All other educational streams will remain online. A Covid-19 testing programme for schoolteachers in advance of the reopening has been underway since Monday. Niedzielski said that having considered the risks relative to the costs for the youngest children of not attending school, the government had ‘decided that the damage caused by pupils not being among their peers outweighs the risks’.
The previous Friday, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Economic Development, Labour and Technology, Jarosław Gowin, had said he was in favour of easing restrictions on shops from January 18th. Shopping malls with the exception of food stores, pharmacies and similar outlets have been forced to close since December 28th. The Polish Council of Shopping Centres, which represents over 200 companies operating in the retail and services sectors, said last Friday that shopping centres will lose over 4 billion złoty in revenue as a result of the third lockdown. In a statement it appealed to the government ‘to open shopping malls as soon as possible and to provide a level of financial support to all businesses affected by the restrictions reflecting the curbs introduced’.
In a sign of some hope for an eventual return to normality, Kraków Airport has announced expansion plans involving an investment of some 1.5bn złoty. The airport said it expects to handle over 4 million passengers in 2021 which, while still less than half the traffic it had in 2019 prior to Coronavirus, would be a considerable improvement on last year. The president of the airport’s board, Radosław Włoszek, said that in 2020 the airport saw less than 2.6m passengers, a decline of 69% on the almost 8.5m passengers it had in 2019. He said that under a conservative estimate ‘the 2019 level of traffic at Kraków Airport will return in 2025’. Poland’s second largest airport in terms of passenger numbers is planning projects including a new runway, a new cargo terminal and an expansion of its passenger terminal.
The Polish government is planning to bring in a new law which would remove the right to refuse an on-the-spot police fine in a move which has been sharply criticised by civil liberties campaigners and risks both causing, and potentially being scuppered by, renewed internal divisions within the ruling Zjednoczona Prawica bloc. The proposal tabled last Friday night would amend the penal code to remove the right to refuse a fine issued by the police for a minor offence, although it could be appealed to a court within the following seven days. Opponents argue that this transfers the burden of proof from the police to the citizen who would have to prove his or her innocence in court. Currently an on-the-spot fine can be refused with the case then going to court to determine the merits or otherwise of the police case. The proposal is supported by members of Prawo i Sprawiedliwość and Solidarna Polska, who argue that the vast majority of objections to fines for minor offences are baseless and that the measure will reduce the burden on the courts.
However, last Sunday Deputy Prime Minister and Porozumienie leader, Jarosław Gowin, described the bill as ‘absurd’ and said it was likely to be withdrawn. Porozumienie said they hadn’t been consulted about the bill in advance of its introduction. The row is a further controversy within the ruling three party right-of-centre bloc which came to the brink of collapse just last September. The prominent legal commentator and law lecturer at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Mikołaj Małecki, told Wirtualna Polska that the bill is a ‘step in the direction of a police state’ and ‘a violation of the constitution’ as alleged offenders would have to prove their innocence in any court appearance. Małecki said that under the bill ‘it is the policeman who will administer justice. It will be the officer who will be the first to decide on the criminal liability of a citizen for a given act. Yet the police officer is only meant to collect evidence, while the court decides on the punishment’.
The Polish President was among those who commented on last Wednesday’s scenes at the U.S. Capitol Building during the certification process for electoral votes arising from last November’s presidential election. Andrzej Duda said in a tweet in the early hours of last Thursday that ‘Poland believes in the power of American democracy’. Duda said that ‘The events in Washington are an internal matter for the United States, which is a democratic state governed by the rule of law. Power depends on the will of the voters, and the security of the state and its citizens is supervised by the services appointed for this purpose’.
The outgoing U.S. Ambassador to Poland and Donald Trump appointee, Georgette Mosbacher, on Tuesday received a top Polish state award, the Grand Cross of the Polish Order of Merit, from President Andrzej Duda at a ceremony in Warszawa. The award is designed to recognise those who have made an outstanding contribution to international cooperation and Poland’s foreign relations. Mosbacher announced at the end of December that she was resigning her post effective January 20th, the date Joe Biden will be sworn-in as the new U.S. President. U.S. ambassadors are of course political appointees and generally supporters of the incumbent administration. There has been much media speculation as to what the Biden presidency will mean for ties between the U.S. and Poland, given the very warm relations of the past four years.
Above: A mighty Polish żubr. (Photo:"File:Bison bonasus Białowieża pl.jpg" by Pleple2000 is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Polish Embassy in Dublin has highlighted the case of the Polish bison, or żubr, which it described as ‘a mighty king of the Białowieża National Park in eastern Poland’. It drew attention to a posting last Saturday on Poland.pl’s Facebook page, which is managed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It highlighted that last month the risk category for the żubr was downgraded on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. It described the reintroduction of European bison as ‘a world-known example of, among others, Polish efforts to preserve the natural environment and a great model for long-term conservation management’. It added that ‘how long-term, can be proved by the fact that the żubr was featured in the logo of the League of Nature Conservation (Liga Ochrony Przyrody), the oldest ecological organisation’ which was established on January 9th, 1928.
Finally, the Irish – Polish film co-production I Never Cry has picked up multiple awards at the 30th Cottbus Film Festival for East European cinema held in Germany. The film is based on the story of an 18-year-old Polish girl who travels to Ireland to collect the body of her father who’s been killed in a work accident. The film by Polish director, Piotr Domalewski, received an audience award, the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury, and the prize for Best Director. Last December it had picked up top awards at the Polish Film Festival.
That’s all for this week.