Portugal braced for new restrictions

Today (Thursday) sees yet another meeting of the ‘crisis cabinet’ (Council of Ministers) beset from all sides by problems. Various sections of society have started ‘kicking back’ against the government’s Covid-combat measures while the epidemiological situation nationally remains dire.

Headlines have been screaming ‘record numbers’ for the last week as hospital admissions in problem areas continue to climb.

Little has been emphasised that is positive – although there is quite a bit out there that is.

In a week when ‘an effective vaccine’ suddenly seems closer, the number of recoveries in Portugal has for once exceeded the number of active cases.

Deaths are ‘running high’, but the national tally since the start of the pandemic is still lower than the total number of deaths during the 2018/2019 flu season – and that was a ‘soft year’, in which a vaccine against ‘the virus’ in question existed.

Nonetheless, ‘there is no room for complacency’ and, as such, today’s crisis cabinet is almost certain to come up with new measures to try and limit the spread of the virus, very possibly including new boroughs to be locked down.

In the Algarve, this almost certainly means Portimão will be joining São Brás de Alportel (which actually only has 34 cases, but due to the small population fills the criteria for the government’s partial lockdown strategy – click here).

Portimão, meantime, has over 160 ‘positive cases’ which takes it well over the government’s limit of the equivalent of 240 per 100,000 inhabitants (click here).

That means Portimão is braced for the nighttime curfews, the limited weekends and the crippling blow to its restaurant sector that State of Emergency rules define (click here). But more is almost certain to come.

Said prime minister António Costa in a radio interview earlier this week, there is no point having the “illusion that this pandemic can be tackled without pain”.

The ‘feeling in the air’ is that borough lockdowns could come into force for the 121 boroughs already under partial lockdown. As things are now, anyone can travel in and out of these high-risk boroughs – go shopping, go to restaurants, attend doctor’s appointments, etc. And any residents of the boroughs can travel beyond borough boundaries, as long as they are home by 11pm. Borough lockdowns would stop all that – but they would be ‘doubly devastating’ for hospitality businesses which are already struggling to survive.

Society ‘kicks back’
Society has started to kick back against the government in myriad ways. The five day nurses’ strike is on day three; protests by restaurateurs in Porto have attested to the desperate pain of the hospitality sector (see story on page 8); shots were fired in Lisbon on the first night of curfew; the Portuguese Bar Association (Order of Attorneys) has decried the State of Emergency for being overly heavy-handed with the Constitution and various ‘kick back’ groups, defining themselves as professions ‘for the truth’, are supporting protests in Lisbon on Saturday .

Says the social media page of Journalists for the Truth: “It’s official. Portugal is unhappy.”

The planned midday protests – one by restaurateurs, another described as a March for Liberty – are likely to join forces. Admittedly rain is forecast and many of these events deliver a great deal less than they promise. But discontent is palpable: the country is tired.

Government losing ground
As President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa has already inferred, governments tackling crises tend to be governments that lose elections, no matter how the crises pan out. And this government hasn’t even got a majority. Indeed, the pandemic has in many ways masked its fragility. No Opposition party would want to take over right now. But they all have their agendas, and are waiting for the moment to strike. By all accounts, it won’t be long.

Pundits and various media sources have suggested ‘the political crisis’ that has been bubbling away for months could prompt early elections, possibly even next year: the State Budget 2021 (OE2021) being one of the major stumbling blocks. The government only saw its first reading scrape through the parliamentary voting process because minority parties ‘abstained’. These are now all rolling up their sleeves with ‘demands’ that will determine whether they support the government in the final vote later this month, or vote against it.

Moody’s pessimistic about Portugal’s bounce-back
Just to add to the pressure, ratings agency Moody’s has sounded the alert over Portugal’s ability to ‘bounce back’ from this crisis, once the pandemic is under control.

Said a note released on Tuesday, Portugal “is one of the countries where the impact of the Covid crisis will be most visible”.

This is because Portugal’s economy – like that of Italy and Greece – is “more exposed” to the destruction caused by the pandemic due to the fact that it is largely made up of small and medium sized businesses.

Add to this the fact that Portugal is already a country carrying massive public debt, and the ‘perfect storm’ ahead, beyond the current deluge of pandemic, is horribly visible.

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