Photo: Eduardo Costa/Lusa

Omicron wave: Portugal plunged into morass of new measures

From 00.00 hours on Christmas Day, Portugal is back, in terms of restrictions, to almost the same time last year – in spite of numbers being treated for Covid in hospitals being a fraction of what they were in 2020. The reason: the rapid spread of the Omicron variant which specialists and government advisors are refusing to view as ‘benign’, in spite of data coming out of countries ‘further ahead of us’.

For the first time in the agonising history of the pandemic, political parties have come out with fists flying.

Measures in place until January 10 (at least) have been dubbed “exaggerated, alarmist and disproportionate” – while a number of parties have queried why, after all this time, the health service is still ‘on its knees’.

With sectors most damaged by the latest measures complaining vociferously, the spectre of a country going to the polls in January adds further uncertainty into the mix.

Right now, parents don’t even know if schools will be reopening on January 10 – already a week later than usual.

Confusion and a sense of exhaustion prevail.

But first to the new measures laid out after an extraordinary meeting of the Council of Ministers on Tuesday.

■ From midnight on Friday, bars and discotheques – businesses that suffered immeasurably during the first year of the pandemic – are being forced to close until January 10 (at least)

■ Ditto crèches and ATLs (tuition centres)

■ Remote working from home becomes mandatory once again for all those whose jobs can be performed over computers

■ Limits on capacity return to indoor venues/shops, each person requiring a space of 5sqm

■ Negative antigen/PCR tests (verified by a health professional see update below) are once again required for entry to sporting venues, shows, concerts, weddings, baptisms, and hotel/touristic accommodation.

For Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, plus December 30/31 and January 1, anyone going to a restaurant, casino or organised festive party must present a negative test for Covid (taken either at a pharmacy or testing centre, verified by a health professional), irrespective of vaccine status.

Self-tests are no longer acceptable for access to any venues or events, though official advice is that these should be used and performed by all citizens before they attend social gatherings over the festive season.

Prime minister António Costa laid out the latest measures, adding that rules over the number of people allowed in a group in the street are back: there can be no more than 10 people together at any one time. And the prohibition on consumption of alcoholic drinks in outdoor public spaces has returned – meaning no popping of champagne corks at midnight on New Year’s Eve if people have been lucky enough to attend an outdoor municipal fireworks’ display (most of which have already been cancelled).

“This still isn’t a normal Christmas,” Mr Costa stated the obvious in a presentation to the nation that began by saying how well the country’s booster vaccinations drive is going: as of Tuesday, 83.5% of the population over the age of 65 had already received their boosters, another 80,000 were booked to receive them the following day – and everything points to the entire roll-out being extended to the rest of the population in the New Year.

In fact, in terms of virus-related news, this has been a busy last few days. In Brussels last week for a Council of Europe, Mr Costa told journalists that a new order for vaccines tweaked to combat the Omicron variant has already been made, and will be ready for the government “to adopt a fourth dose of reinforcement if this is necessary.

In his words: “Unfortunately, we have to accept that this will happen” – meaning, even before the country was told that ‘everyone will need a third booster shot’, European leaders have pre-booked fourth doses, ostensibly to be administered in the spring.

Meantime, Covid Digital Passports are to have ‘expiry dates’ dependent on the number of booster shots people receive.

The European Commission announced on Tuesday that these vaccine certificates “would only be valid for nine months without a booster shot”.

Reports have explained that the EU Commission “said that a harmonised validity period for Covid vaccine passports is a necessity for free movement and EU level coordination”.

In other words, on the back of Omicron, rules have started to stretch ahead of us into a future in which everyone who seeks to travel ‘freely’ will need to keep up with booster shots for a virus that looks like it is becoming increasingly milder.

Virologist Pedro Simas, working out of Lisbon University’s Institute of Molecular Medicine, has tried repeatedly to calm the rising tide of fear. “Omicron is benign,” he told national television well over a week ago – and is taking SARS-CoV-2 down the traditional path that viruses follow: they “strike a balance with the human being” (in order to survive).

Pedro Simas clearly does not believe the booster programme is needed by the population at large – and he is not the only one. Newspaper columnists are increasingly querying ‘the science’ that is taking the world into this dystopian future.

Henrique Raposo wrote last week that “Society continues obsessively to count cases when it should be counting hospitalisations and deaths to be able to reach the obvious comparison that guarantees hope and security: 3,000 cases per day in December 2020 represented x deaths; now 3,000 cases per day provokes a much lower mortality.

“Why is the narrative not like this? Why is it that no-one speaks like this? Why is the focus on the dubious vaccination of children and imposition of tests for simple things? Who does this increasingly unreasonable sense of fear benefit?

“I repeat: if we maintain this level of death from Covid (between 10-20 deaths per day), it will mean that this winter the number of deaths from Covid will be a great deal lower than the number of deaths from flu in recent years.”

Political parties, too, have started accepting ‘gaps in the official narrative’ – after all, if a country ‘led the world’ in vaccinating its population and is now forced back into a maze of restrictions when none of the red lines set by ‘experts’ are being surpassed, ‘something does not smell right’.

It could be that Portugal’s leaders are simply being ‘led’ by Brussels: other European countries have reacted in much the same way to Omicron. But another aspect muddying the mix is the fact that data coming in from countries like the UK, Denmark and South Africa have shown that the wave of Omicron in Europe is being “driven by young, healthy, vaccinated people”.

Dr Catherine Smallwood, WHO’s senior emergency officer at the organisation’s Europe office explained this to The Telegraph, in an article headlined: “Omicron wave driven by ‘young, healthy, vaccinated’ population”, published over a week ago.

The results tally with previous studies coming out of the United States, and explain why, almost two years into this pandemic, the overriding feeling is that, after all the announcements, measures and predictions, we really have no idea what will happen next.

UPDATE: Following mutiny from the restaurant sector (see new story on our main page) the government has confirmed that self-tests done ‘at the door’ will also be acceptable…

[email protected]