As we went to press on Wednesday, parliament was due to ‘debate’ approval of the President’s 12th decree for a State of Emergency in Portugal. With the epidemiological situation vastly improved – and numbers falling by the day – the decree brings ‘nothing new’: March is going to be every bit as locked down as February and most of January.
The ‘stumbling block’ to reopening the country and starting the long road back to some kind of recovery of the economy remains the number of patients in intensive care units.
On Wednesday, these were still just under 600. Experts have long insisted ICUs have to be ‘down to under 200 Covid patients’ before it could possibly be ‘safe’ to reopen schools, commerce, businesses – in short, the country.
Yes, Portugal has gone from ‘the worst in the world’ in terms of the numbers of those infected and dying per 100,000 of population, to now being the country with the ‘lowest Rt (transmission) rate in Europe’.
But the bottom line is that the minute people are let out of their homes – the minute lockdown restrictions are relaxed – the Rt rate will increase. To ensure hospitals are not quickly overwhelmed, numbers in them have to be brought right down.
Experts have beaten this drum to the point that it is now wholly accepted by the PS government.
It is not so wholly accepted by minority parties who are in the main set to vote against the renewal of this Groundhog Day ritual of approving a ‘State of Emergency’ when in many respects the emergency has passed.
We are now in the ‘vaccinations phase’; the phase where numbers of infected, new cases and even deaths are reducing. Numbers in hospitals have fallen by roughly 1,500 in a week.
As we wrote this article, hospitals were poised to have fewer than 3,000 Covid patients in active treatment.
For many, it is time to start reopening Portugal now.
“It seems the country has gone to sleep,” railed João Figueiredo Cotrim, the sole MP for Iniciativa Liberal, a party that has consistently voted against the constant renewals of Portugal’s State of Emergency. “It’s as if there is no urgency (to get back to work). We cannot run a pandemic like this, simply considering the sanitary aspect. This (lockdown) is going to cost us very dearly for a very long time. I believe the government has an obligation to rapidly invert this tendency…”
So do other parties, including PCP communists who will be voting against the approval of the 12th State of Emergency taking the country to March 16.
But it won’t make a jot of difference. With PSD and PS voting in favour, backed by CDS-PP (which nonetheless wants a ‘roadmap’ out of lockdown) and PAN, yet more weeks of lockdown are a certainty.
On Wednesday, newspapers were stressing that President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa wants ‘clear criteria’ on how the government intends to reopen the country – but daren’t make too much of a song and dance about it in case ‘the Portuguese’ interpret his discomfort with the lack of any published plan as an excuse to relax their own behaviour, in spite of all the restrictions.
Tuesday’s meeting of experts at Infarmed already alluded to the fact that ‘mobility’ has been increasing in face of the improving virus panorama.
Bit by bit, people are simply getting so tired of ‘staying at home’, that they are taking their chances.
Meantime, hotels, restaurants, schools, driving schools, shop keepers, businesses of all kinds are despairing over the lack of guidance.
Deconfinement will start with schools, says minister.
It’s the closest the country has come to learning the government’s intentions. Closing the Young Socialists online forum over the weekend, Minister for the State and the Presidency Mariana Vieira da Silva affirmed Portugal’s deconfinement will start with schools. The government has already “shown this intention”, she said, countering the statement with the fact that it is “still too soon” to come up with any kind of date.
An Open Letter, however, addressed to the government and President Marcelo has appealed for schools to start a phased reopening from next week.
Drawn up by university professors, economists, scientists, doctors, psychologists, paediatricians, epidemiologists and business managers, the letter defends the return of the youngest age groups first on the basis that distance learning, particularly at this stage in a child’s development, is far less efficient and exacerbates social inequalities.
Concerns also are for the “increase in psychological and psychiatric problems in children and young people” (this being a can of worms very few seem ready to open yet).
For the experts’ plan to work, the letter calls for teachers and educational auxiliaries to be included in the list of priorities for vaccination.
This latter proviso is possibly ‘the rub’ – certainly very little response has come so far – and there appears to be no chink of light yet as to when children will be allowed back into the classroom. For this we will have to wait another two weeks to hear what is in store when the next State of Emergency reaches its two-week deadline for renewal.
Brussels asks member states who have closed frontiers for ‘explanations’
With Portugal’s own borders ‘controlled’ to the point citizens need a documented reason to cross them, Brussels has decided to ‘react’ to the six member states that have opted to close theirs altogether: Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Hungary and Sweden.
Say reports, the European Commission’s concern is the “necessity to guarantee that restrictions on the liberty of movement are proportional and not discriminatory”.
The commission has already stressed it expects “a significant recovery of tourism” across the bloc this summer, thus a first step in this direction as the virus situation throughout Europe improves is to reopen borders.
Talk of ‘vaccine passports’, however, has been muted on the basis that vaccine supply to member states has been much too slow to make these viable.
As we went to press, Portugal’s vaccine task force coordinator Henrique Gouveia e Melo was admitting that the option to delay the time between first and second doses is now being considered – in line with current practice in the UK – to ensure another 200,000 elderly citizens can be protected sooner rather than later.
The ‘masterplan’ is still for the country to be 70% vaccinated by the summer – but that is dependent on supplies keeping to current schedules. On Wednesday morning, AstraZeneca, for instance, announced that it may only be able to produce half the vaccines promised to the EU during the second trimester.
By NATASHA DONN