ATHENS – Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, after a shakeup of his Cabinet that saw three ministers replaced amid criticism over his government's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and wildfires, ran into another imbroglio when his appointee for a new agency overseeing fire responses abruptly quit.
Evangelos Apostolakis, a former chief of the Greek armed forces and the defense minister when the Radical Left SYRIZA was in power, pulled out of the Cabinet just before the swearing-in after New Democracy's opposition said he was disloyal.
A retired Admiral, it wasn't said why he didn't ignore the criticism from SYRIZA and take the position that was a key agency to deal with the country's past bungled handling of dealing with fires.
That included the July 23, 2018 disaster of wildfires that killed 102 people when SYRIZA was in power, that government accused by critics of not having a disaster response plan which hiked the death toll.
While other new ministers were sworn in Tuesday, the position Apostolakis was nominated for was left vacant, and the responsibility for firefighting coordination reverted to the Ministry of Citizens' Protection, a government announcement said.
The wildfires that destroyed more than 1,000 square kilometers (385 square miles) in southern Greece and an August spike in COVID-19 cases have caused public discontent, according to recent opinion polls.
But the surveys also found that Mitsotakis has maintained a strong lead over SYRIZA and its leader and former premier Alexis Tsipras, whose constant sniping hasn't cut into the Conservatives lead as high as 20 percent and more.
The number of daily COVID-19 cases Greece has reported this month are the highest since the start of the pandemic, raising concern that public hospitals could again be under enormous pressure in the fall.
Lagging the European Union average, only 53.4 percent of the country's residents have been fully vaccinated, far short of the 70 percent benchmark health officials said is needed to beat back the pandemic.
Mitsotakis still hasn't moved, however, to make shots mandatory except for health care workers even as the pandemic has worsened because of anti-vaxxers and the now dominant Delta Variant from India strain that's spreading.
As part of the overhaul that took effect the health minister – a former pro basketball player with no health background – was named Tourism Minister, replacing Haris Theocharis, whos efforts had attracted more visitors than expected.
The new health minister, Athanasios Plevris, has an extremist anti-migrant background and defended the government's plan to suspend unvaccinated public health care workers without pay starting Sept. 2.
“There is no punitive treatment for those who don’t vaccinate,” Plevris said. “But the same way a doctor or health care worker has the right not to be vaccinated, a patient with a tumor also has the right to be treated by a doctor who has been vaccinated.”
He didn't explain why doctors and nurses who must be vaccinated have a right not to be inoculated, the contradiction unexplained. SYRIZA said the Cabinet changes were an indication of New Democracy failures.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)