By Jan Lopatka and Robert Muller

PRAGUE (Reuters) -Slovakia’s hospitals are in a critical situation dealing with a surge in coronavirus infections and the government will approve measures on Thursday to limit access to services for unvaccinated people, Prime Minister Eduard Heger said.

Europe has again become the epicentre of the pandemic, prompting countries like Slovakia and neighbouring Austria to re-introduce restrictions in the run-up to Christmas.

The country of 5.5 million reported record daily cases of around 6,500 in recent days. The health ministry said on Tuesday there were just 20 beds with lung ventilators available.

“Situation in hospitals is critical,” Heger told reporters.

“We need to significantly tighten (restrictions) in the coming three weeks to calm down the situation at hospitals,” he said as he urged people to get vaccinated.

Heger said the government would allow only vaccinated people to attend large events, and set rules for testing at workplaces.

Non-essential shops and services, sports, wellness and hotels will be open only for vaccinated people or those who had overcome COVID-19 in the past six months.

The eastern part of Slovakia is suffering most. A hospital in Presov city had no more beds for COVID-19 patients, as it transferred them elsewhere and limited non-urgent care.

“When people don’t care (to get vaccinated), of course our staff are frustrated as they could treat other patients,” J.A. Reiman University Hospital director Lubomir Sarnik said.

Slovakia is one of Europe’s least vaccinated countries, with 45% of population vaccinated compared to the EU average of 64.9%, European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control data showed.

In the majority-Catholic country, bishops also called on people to get vaccinated as 46 people died of COVID-19 in the past day, bringing the toll of reported deaths since the pandemic began to 13,644.

(Reporting by Jan Lopatka and Robert MullerEditing by Peter Graff and Grant McCool)