Photo: Mário Cruz/Lusa

New State of Emergency presented as ‘soft’ but ‘drastic measures’ could be round corner

Wednesday saw 7.1 million Portuguese in 121 mainland boroughs once again in partial lockdown as politicians argued the small print of a new declaration of State of Emergency expected to be voted through either later today (Thursday) or early tomorrow morning.

The official message preparing citizens is that this ‘Emergency’ will be ‘soft’, with ‘less limitations on rights and freedoms’. But the decree, once in place, opens the door to so much more.

The tabloid press has warned of ‘drastic measures’ that could come into force as early as the first two weeks of December. These include further limitations on mobility, and a greater number of boroughs to be placed into partial lockdown with nighttime curfews, reduced hours for commercial establishments and limits on socialising beyond one’s immediate household.

The truth is that even with current partial lockdown measures (mainly in the North and Lisbon/Vale do Tejo areas) – and in spite of last weekend’s legally-questionable ‘borough lockdowns’ – the tR (rate of transmission) appears to be on a roll.

Epidemiologists have predicted “a peak” during the third week in November rising to as many as 6,000 positive new infections per day.

Authorities never explain how many of these new infections are asymptomatic, but, as experts stress, “the situation is very fragile”.

Talking to Correio da Manhã, Manuel Carmo Gomes, professor of epidemiology at the University of Lisbon’s science faculty, explained that even if the country had entered total lockdown last Monday, “we could not escape a scenario of 5,000 new cases per day”.

Notwithstanding asymptomatic cases, the number implies “a lot of hospitalisations”, he warned – and the country is already at a dangerously high level in this regard, with some hospitals already calling for back-up in terms of staff and indeed bed-space.

As we wrote this text, the ministry of health issued a new dispatch ordering all SNS (State) hospitals to suspend non-urgent assistential activity during the month of November.

It was another sign that the ‘soft’ State of Emergency touted by Prime Minister António Costa and repeated by President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa in perhaps one of the most ‘unpresidential’ interviews he has ever given (on RTP State television on Tuesday evening) may be a mirage.

The weeks ahead, and indeed Christmas, are looking very uncertain.

As to the Covid numbers, these too hold little joy: deaths have been mounting over the last week – reaching as many as 46 in one day (37 of which were victims in their 80s) – as have hospital admissions, admissions into ICUs, and case numbers.

But Tuesday saw an upside: more infections deemed ‘cured’ than new ones registered – and case numbers seemed to be reducing. Whether that continues is what we wait to see. The official narrative suggests otherwise – and political parties that started the week against supporting a new State of Emergency are now all ‘coming on board’.

In many respects, that’s irrelevant. PS and PSD votes in favour are all that’s required for the declaration to pass – and those have been ‘in the bag’ since last week.

But in the chaos of the last few days – not helped by the President’s ‘interview’ which descended into a kind of animated one-man show, with the interviewer staring helplessly from behind his glasses – one aspect is clear: there is an awful lot we are not being told.

For example, the new action by Brussels “to reinforce preparedness and response measures across the EU”.

To be fair, prime minister Costa did mention this in passing after an extraordinary meeting of the European Council (which went ahead by videoconference) – but very few media outlets followed it up.

Essentially, what emerged was an eight-point plan to “help limit the spread of the coronavirus, save lives and strengthen the internal market’s resilience”.

What was largely ‘hidden’ was the fact that Portugal’s StayAway Covid app (for the time being still ‘optional’) is to be merged into the “European Federation Gateway Service” (click here).

By next month, Brussels seems to expect citizens throughout Europe to have joined the service which will determine whether (or not) they cross borders.

Next month will also see Brussels “present the first step towards a European Health Union”, explained Stella Kyriakides, commissioner for health and food safety, in a press release following the meeting.

“The rise in COVID-19 infection rates across Europe is very alarming,” she said. “Decisive immediate action is needed for Europe to protect lives and livelihoods, to alleviate the pressure on healthcare systems, and to control the spread of the virus.

“…. Member States must improve cooperation and data sharing. Our EU surveillance system is only as strong as its weakest link. It is only by showing true European solidarity and working together that we can overcome this crisis. Together we are stronger.”

Without Brussels’ support for post-pandemic recovery, Portugal would be on its knees financially – thus there is no likelihood of politicians digging in heels over measures presented as pivotal to the ‘saving lives and limiting Covid-spread’ (no matter how intrusive or unconstitutional these measures may be).

On the subject of unconstitutionality, we appear to have ‘missed’ a kind of magician’s trick last weekend: the Council of Ministers decreed nationwide borough lockdowns – dispatching police onto the roads to enforce them – while the President admitted they were not legally-binding in any way shape or form.

Yet the legal enforcement continued. People ‘fell in line’, too.

Only one lawyer has decided to take the issue to the Constitutional Court. Her bid is being supported by the Law Association (Ordem dos Advogados).

A similar bid by right-wing party Chega failed at the Supreme Administrative Court which decided to accept the government’s ‘counter argument’ that current laws covered the lockdowns – and that it’s not up to a political party to “act juridically in the defence of citizens” anyway.

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