A new surge in Covid-19 cases in Europe is seeing restrictions being imposed yet again in many countries. In Portugal, a key meeting involving the government and specialists is due to take place this Friday with the goal of drawing up a plan to keep the pandemic from spiralling out of control ahead of Christmas, New Year and the upcoming elections in January.
Prime Minister António Costa addressed the rising case numbers on Tuesday, stressing that “we cannot ignore the signs” and that “the later we act, the larger the risks will be”.
“We have to act now to get to Christmas with fewer fears. Acting now is not a rushed decision and is based on the scientific information that will be shared with the country on Friday. We will not hesitate when we have to implement measures to protect the health of the population,” the PM said, assuring however, that these (measures) are not expected to be of the same “magnitude as in the past”. In other words, the return of a full-blown lockdown is unlikely.
The key will be deciding “which measures are adequate and strictly necessary”, said the PM, adding that citizens must be “extra cautious” due to the arrival of winter and the flu season.
However, Costa refused to feed any speculation about which measures could be implemented until Friday’s meeting.
One possibility which Portugal’s Minister for Employment, Solidarity and Social Security has already admitted is the return of mandatory teleworking (for those who can work from home) if the situation continues to worsen.
Wearing masks on public streets again is another option on the table that has been backed by the President of the Republic, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa.
Addressing reporters on Tuesday, President Marcelo tried to put the current Covid-19 numbers – which have been steadily rising since the start of November – into perspective.
As he explained, Portugal is now dealing with “fewer than 20 Covid-19 related deaths per day” and daily case numbers ranging between 1,500 and 1,700, when at the same time last year there were around 80 deaths per day and 5,000 to 7,000 new cases.
Both Costa and Marcelo have highlighted the role that the country’s vaccination drive has played in keeping the situation in Portugal under control and stressed the importance of the third dose of the vaccine being administered to those aged over 65.
Meanwhile, Portugal’s General Medical Council (Ordem dos Médicos) has launched a staunch warning about the country’s epidemiological situation, which it says has increased from a state of “alert” to “alarm”. Speaking to Rádio Observador, Carlos Robalo Cordeiro from the Ordem’s “crisis office” called for the return of some of the more basic measures, such as “social distancing and teleworking”.
He also said that capacity should be reduced again for “certain events” and criticised the footage showing thousands of people watching Portugal’s match against Serbia on Sunday at Estádio da Luz in Lisbon without masks. The specialist also called for a quick roll-out of the third dose of the vaccines.
A different take has been provided by virologist Pedro Simas, who said in an interview with TVI24 on Sunday that he does not believe any further restrictions will need to be imposed in Portugal. The reason, he explained, is the success of the country’s stellar vaccination drive.
“This is a completely different situation from last year,” he said. “Last year, we were trying to control a wave with little more than 3% of population immunity, now we have nearly 90% of the population fully-jabbed in Portugal,” he said, adding that it is normal that case numbers are on the rise now with the change of season.
“Yes, we will have a new wave, not only of Covid but of other respiratory viruses,” the virologist explained.
In fact, he adds that other viruses are worrying him more because, when it comes to the SARS-Cov-2 virus in Portugal, “everything is being done correctly” with booster shots being administered to the elderly and high-risk groups.
Second generation vaccines – the cure to the pandemic?
While specialists agree that the Covid-19 vaccines have played a key role in preventing serious illnesses and deaths, they have not been able to create the much-anticipated “herd immunity” that many believed could end the pandemic once and for all.
This could change with a second generation of vaccines, which will seek to stop the virus from being transmitted from person to person.
“All we have to do is buy some time until this second generation of vaccines, which are already being developed to block transmission, appear. Only then will we be able to breathe a sigh of relief and win this battle,” Manuel Santos Rosa, an immunologist and professor at the Faculty of Medicine of Coimbra, has told Diário de Notícias.
Rosa did not dismiss the importance of the current vaccines, even describing them as the “biggest weapon we have” at the moment.
“We should have already realised that while the current vaccines are very important in reducing serious illnesses and deaths, they do not create herd immunity. What we need to tell the population is to be a little more patient and continue fighting the virus with individual protection measures,” he told Diário de Notícias.
The key will be to strike a balance between being safe but continuing to live life as normal as possible.
“The economy has already suffered enough and nobody wants it to suffer further,” he said.
“People have to live, and nobody wants capacity to be reduced at restaurants and other locations, but we need to maintain social distancing measures and good ventilation,” the immunologist added.
By MICHAEL BRUXO