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Greece struggles to shake up safety agency after huge fires

August 31, 2021 GMT
Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou, centre right, and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis attend a swearing in ceremony of newly appointed ministers at the Presidential palace, in Athens, Greece, Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021. Greece's center-right government has replaced ministers in charge of public security and health in the wake of massive wildfires and a resurgence of COVID-19 cases that have caused widespread discontent. (AP Photo/Yorgos Karahalis)
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Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou, centre right, and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis attend a swearing in ceremony of newly appointed ministers at the Presidential palace, in Athens, Greece, Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021. Greece's center-right government has replaced ministers in charge of public security and health in the wake of massive wildfires and a resurgence of COVID-19 cases that have caused widespread discontent. (AP Photo/Yorgos Karahalis)
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Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou, centre right, and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis attend a swearing in ceremony of newly appointed ministers at the Presidential palace, in Athens, Greece, Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021. Greece's center-right government has replaced ministers in charge of public security and health in the wake of massive wildfires and a resurgence of COVID-19 cases that have caused widespread discontent. (AP Photo/Yorgos Karahalis)

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece’s center-right government replaced top public security officials following the country’s multiple devastating wildfires this month, but it also suffered an embarrassing political setback Tuesday when the retired admiral appointed to oversee firefighting withdrew hours before he was due to be sworn in.

The government had named Evangelos Apostolakis, a former chief of the Greek armed forces and the defense minister under a previous government, as the head of a newly created Civil Protection Ministry. Apostolakis pulled out after the political opposition accused him of being disloyal.

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. However, the polls also suggest that conservative Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has maintained a strong lead over his main rival, the left-wing Syriza party. 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, 53.4% of the country’s residents have been fully vaccinated.

As part of the Cabinet overhaul that took effect Tuesday, the health minister was transferred to oversee tourism. The new health minister, Athanasios Plevris, defended the government’s plan to suspend unvaccinated public health care workers without pay starting Wednesday.

“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.”

___ Theodora Tongas in Athens contributed reporting. Follow Gatopoulos at https://twitter.com/dgatopoulos.