New Year of uncertainty as Omicron variant sends world into flat spin

New Year of uncertainty as Omicron variant sends world into flat spin

Even before the global furore over Omicron, Portugal was told to brace for a winter of tightened restrictions. Prime minister António Costa addressed the nation last Thursday to stress that although vaccinations have helped massively, the country has entered “a period of greater risk”. Pressure on hospitals is increasing – as it invariably does in the winter – and as tough as it is to hear, the vaccinations alone have not stopped transmission.

Then Omicron arrived on the scene – and what had appeared last Thursday to be a relatively gentle approach to the winter, suddenly got a whole lot tougher.

The most stringent restrictions in place affect arrivals into this country – and will run until January 9.

The country as a whole, however, is back in a State of Calamity which has been scheduled to run until March 20 next year.

Meanwhile, the vaccine booster campaign is forging ahead, protecting the over-65s and most vulnerable – as well as health workers and other public service providers.

DGS health officials are still mulling over the issue of rolling out the vaccinations in younger age groups (namely the over 5s to 11s). This remains an issue dividing pediatricians who have ‘lamented’ in the press that irrespective of their professional reservations, they believe the policy will be adopted.

But first, to the new measures: Covid Digital Certificates have now become obligatory for access to restaurant interiors (see exceptions below); touristic establishments and accommodation (meaning hotels, holiday rentals etc.), events with marked seating and gymnasiums.

The certificates on their own are now no longer enough for visits to old people’s homes, visits to people in hospital or health establishments, large indoor or sporting events, discotheques and bars. For all these, people will have to show a negative diagnostic test taken for Covid-19 at a pharmacy, irrespective of proof of vaccinations. The shop-bought ‘auto-tests’ one used to be able to do at the door for entry into restaurants, bars, etc., are no longer valid.

The same goes for entry into the country: irrespective of vaccine status, anyone entering the country, whether a national or non-national, will have to show proof of a negative diagnostic test for Covid-19 taken during the permitted number of hours previously (72 hours for PCR; 48 for antigen).

Announcing these measures before the Omicron variant stories started circulating, PM Costa outlined strong sanctions for any airlines transporting passengers without negative tests (see page 4). Since then, however, authorities have updated travel advice, suspending flights into Portugal from Mozambique, South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), Lesotho, Namibia and Zimbabwe. Anyone arriving from these countries, by however means, will be expected to take a barrage of tests and remain in quarantine for 14 days.

Continuing with the Calamity regulations, mask wearing in public open spaces has returned to being ‘obligatory’ when suitable social distancing cannot be maintained, and obligatory in public indoor settings.

Mr Costa has stressed that new restrictions may well be adopted if the need arises. But looking towards the festive season, he said the onus now is on people to self-test before social and family gatherings, and reduce what he called “excess social contacts”.

Leaving Christmas and the New Year relatively ‘free’, he said January 2 will see the country confined by “a week of contact containment”: schools and discotheques will be closed; teleworking will become obligatory (for all those where it is possible) and the idea is for citizens to remain at home as much as possible, to ensure any infections contracted over the holiday period do not run wild.

Schools, which normally return shortly after the New Year Bank Holiday, will only do so on January 10, with days lopped off Carnival and Easter breaks to make up for time lost.

“Reaching the 85% mark of vaccinations in Portugal (we are now already at 87%) did not end the pandemic,” Mr Costa conceded. “It allowed us to reduce cases, hospitalisations and deaths and has left us in a better position than the rest of Europe … We are better off than the majority of European countries, but we aren’t as well off as we would have hoped.”

The restrictions do have some grey areas, however. For example, cafés – which often provide meals – are not included in the list of new restrictions, meaning people using them are under no obligation to reveal their vaccine status or otherwise.

Ditto for restaurant terraces. And this throws up another moot area: anyone eating on a restaurant terrace will be allowed inside the restaurant to use the lavatory, or to pay.

The same goes for people purchasing takeaways: no proof of vaccination status will be required.

Church masses remain open to everyone, again irrespective of showing Covid Digital Certificates/negative tests.

On Wednesday also, DGS health chiefs confirmed that once people have shown all the necessary paperwork to enter a bar or a discotheque, there will be no reason for them to wear masks inside. This contradicted information understood by the sector, following discussions with the government last week – meaning, confusion dogs the detail, leaving many people bewildered.

Columnist Manuel S. Fonseca has made no bones of what he sees as a “lethal combination of cowardice with total absence of feeling for life”.

When did this “fear of death” takeover society, he asks?

It is a question being posed increasingly as the world appears to be tying itself in self-defeating knots of prevention.

Even authorities have fallen into confusion by mistakenly stating in article 18 clause 157 of the Resolution of the Council of Ministers published in State newspaper Diário da República last Sunday: “Only essential and non-essential journeys are authorised…”

The World Health Organisation has also said, in response to the so-far unestablished effects of Omicron, that vulnerable people and anyone over the age of 60 should delay any journeys they may have planned over the festive period.

In the words of President Marcelo, who calmly travelled to Angola for the weekend – when other countries were putting the African country on their travel red lists – the moment is one for everyone “to take a deep breath”:

Omicron could end up being “a repetition of other variants identified in South Africa” and, in the other cases, the variants “were not in the end so serious”.

13 test positive for Omicron
The DGS health authority has revealed that 13 positive cases have been discovered in Portugal – all of them involving people who remain ‘well’, some even showing no symptoms.

In Portugal, for the time being, the 13 cases identified are among football players and ‘the technical team’ of Belenenses SAD.

As SIC explains, “one of them returned recently from South Africa”.

DGS health director Graça Freitas has described all those infected as having a “favourable evolution” of the virus, which she agrees “is very good news”.

The next step will be to “intensely” seek out the contacts of the infected 13, ensure they go into self-isolation and get them to take diagnostic tests (irrespective of their vaccination status, or indeed level of exposure).