Portugal extends lockdown and restricts foreign travel amid surge in COVID-19 cases

On a day Portugal reported another dramatic record of daily deaths and infections from COVID-19 the Portuguese president made a resounding appeal to the nation as the state of emergency was renewed for another two weeks.

“If it’s the case that this time the wave began in the west and Portugal is one of the first instead of the last to take on the pandemic we must act quickly and drastically,” said Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa in a televised address to the nation.

The country logged new daily records on Thursday of 16,432 additional infections and 303 deaths in the last 24 hours, bringing the total pandemic tally to more than 685,000 cases and over 11,600 fatalities.

A January pandemic surge has stretched medical services in Portugal to breaking point.

The president added that the country was living the “worst moment” of the pandemic, with “some of the highest numbers in Europe”.

“The English variant of the virus has spread dramatically taking over 50% of the cases already in the Lisbon area. The pressure in hospitals, mostly in Lisbon, is extreme. The number of deaths is increasing in numbers unthinkable a few months ago,” Rebelo de Sousa said.

By size of population, Portugal has been the worst-hit country in the world for more than a week in terms of daily new cases and deaths, data compiled by Johns Hopkins University shows.

Portugal is reeling from the twin effects of a Christmas relaxation of restrictions on movement and gatherings that coincided with the appearance of a fast-spreading new variant first identified in England.

Ambulances queue outside hospitals

Day after day ambulances waiting to deliver COVID-19 patients queue outside hospital emergency departments in Portugal.

In the late hours of Thursday around 40 ambulances were in line waiting for an emergency service triage at the Santa Maria Hospital in Lisbon, one of the hospitals most affected by the rapid rise in virus cases.

The number of COVID-19 hospitalisations and patients in intensive care continue to reach new highs, placing the Portuguese public health system under severe strain.

Santa Maria hospital management acknowledged the mounting pressure on all services, however the head of the hospital board made a public appeal to people, saying that many patients have only mild symptoms and would not need an ambulance to come to the hospital.

Daniel Ferro said this unnecessary use of an ambulance for transport purposes only is merely adding more pressure to its already overstretched coping capacity.

Foreign travel restricted

Following consultations with the president, earlier in the day the government announced a two-week limitation on foreign travel for its nationals as it tries to contain the worrying spread of coronavirus that is putting its hospitals beyond their capacity limit.

Experts have chided the government for failing to respond more swiftly.

Flights to and from the UK were banned only last weekend. Flights to and from Brazil, a country with close ties to Portugal where another worrying variant has been detected, will be banned only from Saturday.

Around the world, countries are on alert for surges triggered by the variants. Portugal could be a peek at what lies in store as governments strive to speed up vaccination programs.

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