By Ivana Sekularac
BELGRADE (Reuters) - Facing growing public discontent, the Serbian government has decided to ease coronavirus lockdown measures this weekend despite warnings by doctors.
Serbia has so far reported 8,724 coronavirus cases and 173 deaths. The number of people unhappy with strict preventative measures introduced by the government of President Aleksandar Vucic is increasing, and many have joined opposition protests from their balconies.
On Thursday the government reversed its decision to lock the entire country down during the coming May Day weekend and instead introduced a curfew from 6 p.m. on Thursday until 5 p.m. on Saturday despite calls by doctors not to relax restrictions.
Serbia's chief epidemiologist, Predrag Kon, a member of the government's crisis team, said the decision was a compromise. "I do not feel good about it," he told state-run RTS TV. He said a three-day lockdown would have been a better and safer decision to prevent the disease spreading.
On Wednesday, Serbia reported 227 new coronavirus cases and 5 deaths. Neighbouring Bosnia reported a rise in cases on Wednesday after the government began easing restrictions.
The number of patients in the KBC Zvezdara hospital in Belgrade, which has been turned into a COVID-19 clinic, halved compared to a few weeks ago to 200 on Thursday, Doctor Vesna Dopudja told Reuters.
"Considering what we have been through we are a bit afraid of easing the measures," she said.
The government had adopted a policy of gradual easing, under which restaurants and cafes open from next week, public transport in Belgrade resumes on May 8, while kindergartens will open on May 11. Hairdressers were allowed to go back to work this week, but with new safety measure.
Mladen Ivanusa, a representative of the World Health Organisation, warned that caution was necessary.
"The first wave of epidemics is not over yet, and it is always possible to see a worsening of the situation," Ivanusa told Reuters.
He said people will have to change their habits to prevent the virus spreading, despite the easing of government measures.
"Normality we are going back to now (as governments ease measures), is not the normality we are used to," Ivanusa said.
For the first time since March 17, when it recorded its first coronavirus case, Montenegro, a small Balkan state of only 630,000 people, reported no new cases.
(Reporting by Ivana Sekularac; Aditional reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Giles Elgood)