Portugal extends lock-in, restricts travel below record Covid-19 climb

Portugal extended a nationwide lockdown until mid-February, announcing curbs on international travel on Thursday, when Prime Minister Antonio Costa accepted the blame for the world’s worst coronavirus flood, with hospitals on the verge of being overrun.

With a population of 10 million, Portugal reported a record 303 COVID-19 deaths and 16,432 new cases, and now has the world’s highest average per seven days per capita for both new cases and deaths.

“The number of deaths is growing at an unimaginable rate,” said Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa as he addressed the nation in a prime-time speech. “The pressure is extreme … we have to act quickly and drastically.”

To try to limit the spread, Portuguese citizens will be banned from traveling to other countries by air, land or sea for the next 15 days and strict controls along the 1200 km (750 km) border with Spain will be introduced, the government announced.

Prime Minister Costa told the TVI broadcaster overnight that the situation was “terrible … and we will face this worst moment in a few more weeks”.

He said the situation had worsened in part because his government released restrictions over the Christmas weekend, with the country now battling the more contagious new variant of the virus first discovered in Britain.

“There was really something wrong: often how I translate the message into Portuguese … and when the recipient of the message did not understand the message, it is the messenger’s fault,” he said. The lock-in should in principle start to reduce the number of infections next week, he added.

Some hospitals have run out of beds, others are seeing declining oxygen supply and doctors and nurses are overstretched. Staff at Cascais Hospital, near Lisbon, told Reuters they were exhausted. “There is no end in sight,” said one nurse.

The Riksdag voted to extend the new locks until at least 14 February. It entered into force on 15 January for the first time since the first wave. Unnecessary services are closed, teleworking is mandatory where possible and schools are closed.

Between Portugal and neighboring Spain, travel is only allowed for the transport of goods or for health reasons. Workers and Portuguese nationals returning home can also cross the border.

Prime Minister Mariana Vieira da Silva also said the government could restrict flights to Portugal from certain countries if needed. A mandatory quarantine for passengers arriving from other places can also be introduced.

Germany said on Wednesday it was willing to help and had sent military medical experts to Portugal to assess the type of support it could provide.

But Costa said there were only so many European partners who could do it. As for German aid, he said: “Unfortunately, in all that Portugal has asked for, they have no availability, namely doctors, nurses.”

Officials said the first phase of Portugal’s vaccination plan would be extended by about two months until April, as delivery delays meant the country would receive only half of the expected doses in March.