Portugal extends lockdown, limits travel as Covid deaths soar

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Portugal has extended its nationwide lockdown through to mid-February and further limited international travel after the country saw the world’s worst surge in the coronavirus.

Portugal reported on Thursday a record 303 Covid-19 deaths and 16,432 new cases in a 24-hour period. With a population of just 10 million, this amounted to the largest number of infections and deaths relative to its population than any other country in the world.

“The number of deaths is growing at an unimaginable pace,” newly re-elected President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa said in a national address. “The pressure is extreme...we need to act quickly and drastically.”

To try to curb the spread, Portuguese nationals will be banned from travelling to other countries by air, land or sea over the next 15 days and strict checks along the 1,200-km border with Spain will be put in place, the government announced.

Between Portugal and neighbouring Spain, travel will only be allowed for the transportation of goods or for health reasons. Workers and Portuguese nationals returning home can cross the land border too.

Cabinet Affairs Minister Mariana Vieira da Silva said the government could restrict flights to Portugal from certain countries when necessary. A mandatory quarantine for passengers arriving from elsewhere could also be imposed.

Hospitals under strain

Prime Minister Costa accepted responsibility for the situation, telling TVI broadcaster overnight the situation was “terrible ... and we’ll face this worst moment for a few more weeks”.

Some hospitals are running out of beds, others see dwindling oxygen supplies, and doctors and nurses are over-stretched. One hospital in the Lisbon suburbs had to urgently transfer more than 100 patients between Tuesday and Wednesday due to problems with its oxygen supplies.

Costa said the situation had worsened partly because his government relaxed restrictions over the Christmas holiday, with the country now grappling with the more contagious new variant of the virus first detected in Britain.

“There were certainly errors: often the way I transmitted the message to the Portuguese ... and, when the recipient of the message did not understand the message, then it is the messenger’s fault,” he said. The lockdown should, in principle, start reducing infection numbers next week, he added.

More staff needed

Portugal went into a second nationwide lockdown on 15 January. Non-essential services are closed, remote work is compulsory where possible and schools are shut.

Germany said on Wednesday it was willing to help and had sent military medical experts to Portugal to assess what kind of support it could bring.

But Costa said there was only so much European partners could do. Regarding possible German aid, he said: “In everything Portugal has asked for, unfortunately they have no availability, namely doctors, nurses.”

(with newswires)