As weeks in Portugal’s fight against the pandemic go, this has been a bad one. Faced with an increasing number of new cases of SARS-CoV-2 in the Greater Lisbon area, prime minister António Costa has warned: “We are not controlling the pandemic”, while German chancellor Angela Merkel set the cat among the pigeons suggesting his government brought these latest problems on itself by disregarding EU policy and flinging Portugal’s doors open to British tourists who unwittingly brought the Delta variant with them.
She told a press conference in Berlin on Tuesday that without a uniform approach across the bloc, the EU will not be able to tackle the threat of new variants.
Her criticism was instantly picked up by Opposition leader Rui Rio, and the fall-out will play out for the next few days.
Irrespective of whether Mrs Merkel overstepped her place in singling out the internal policy of another Member State, the truth is the situation in Portugal is rapidly running into the realms of farce.
Thursday is being billed by national media as the ‘moment new restrictions’ are to be announced following a meeting of the Council of Ministers.
Since last Friday, all messages have been that ‘new restrictions are urgently needed’ to stop the spread of the Delta variant from Lisbon to other parts of the country.
According to the accepted risk matrix, Portugal has ‘entered the red zone’, where Rt (transmission) and incidence levels are no longer acceptable.
The solution, however, has brought nothing beyond localised lockdowns/ sanitary cordons.
Last weekend saw an area accommodating the lives of 3.5 million people effectively sectioned off from the rest of the country. This instantly caused a rush of cancellations in hotels/restaurants/AirBnB-type accommodation (see story on page 12) – and the prospects now for any kind of summer recovery have had to be dismally revised downwards.
The worst of Portugal’s current reality is a complete lack of clarity. On the one hand, citizens have heard Mr Costa stress the way out of this mess depends wholly on their own behaviours.
“We are not controlling the pandemic because (people’s) behaviours are not adequate to the reality of the pandemic…” he told the country.
Yet, epidemiologists insist the Delta variant will spread no matter what people do.
Herein lies another complete confusion. By infecting people (who in the vast majority recover), the Delta variant (or any that follow it) will – if viewed from another perspective – speed-up the process of natural immunity (a condition that experts have admitted is more robust than any response that might be conferred by the vaccines).
Yes, numbers requiring hospital treatment have been rising – but they are nowhere near the numbers that caused the health system to heave dangerously last winter – and they are unlikely to reach that point (this is the view of experts, not just President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa who has totally discounted any idea that Portugal could be headed for yet another State of Emergency).
Adding to the Arthur-or-Martha messaging is the ‘threat’, floated over the weekend by TV pundit Luís Marques Mendes, that the Covid Digital Certificate could be used internally as a tool to try and reduce transmission.
The idea is that unless people have it they won’t be admitted into restaurants/hotels/events has been universally trashed by the battered hospitality sector, while epidemiologists have also said it will be totally unnecessary.
One of the ‘darlings of the press’ when it comes to the experts is virologist Pedro Simas, a university professor working out of Lisbon’s Institute of Molecular Medicine. He insists there is absolutely no need for all the political noises of doom, gloom and accusatory angst as, within five weeks, we will have attained herd immunity thanks to a combination of vaccinations (which are zipping through the cohorts) and natural infections (ditto).
Others in his profession are not quite so sure. Paulo Paixão, president of the Portuguese Society of Virology, for instance, is among the experts who doubt herd immunity is that close. Miguel Castanho – also attached to the Institute of Molecular Medicine – explains the “idea (of herd immunity) has been superseded by (the knowledge) that vaccines are not 100% efficacious…they do not protect against infection or transmission (meaning any vaccinated person to some degree will contribute to transmission of the virus)”.
Try digesting that and then fully accepting that ‘the only way forwards is to press forwards with the vaccination programme…’
To confuse people even further, national media has introduced another ‘expert’ into the mix who believes the only way to beat Covid-19 is to vaccinate children, even though the World Health Organisation insists “children should not be vaccinated for the moment” as there is not enough evidence on the use of vaccines against Covid-19 in children to make this kind of recommendation.
Messaging has become so ludicrously varied that people are losing faith in authorities’ leadership.
Meantime, in the United States, one news channel has addressed what it calls the “potentially deadly impact of censorship and media cover-ups as evidence mounts that big tech and corporate media has silenced truthful facts about Covid to the detriment of the American people”.
Fox News’ “Sunday Morning Features” gave time last weekend to two doctors convinced of the efficacy of current drugs in treating early symptoms of Covid-19: drugs that should be easily available but whose supply has been severely limited through the pandemic.
One of these drugs, Ivermectin, is being prescribed (very quietly) by doctors in Portugal. They are a small group; they do not even seek payment for the remote prescriptions they supply to those who find them – because they believe this is the best direction: facing the virus and dealing with it at its early stages.
The ‘wonder of Ivermectin’ is not new. It is simply that, for reasons unclear, its efficacy up until now has been conveniently suppressed.
This week, however, has seen the UK admit to conducting a study on the drug, which is off-patent so not making anyone any money.
As we wrote this text, Portuguese media was starting to report on ‘yet another variant’, this time dubbed “Delta Plus”. Again, the inference is ‘things can only get worse’.
The flip side can be found with Pedro Simas, again, who insists that no new variant will bring anything worse. Variants are normal; they are part-and-parcel of any virus … “and we all need to calm down”.
New hope for Brits desperate for quarantine-free holidays in Portugal
There is new hope for Britons desperate for quarantine-free holidays in Portugal – and indeed any other ‘amber list’ countries (which continue to be the majority of popular holiday destinations).
Reports in the UK media suggest ministers are looking at loosening travel restrictions for fully vaccinated travellers – meaning proof of two-jabs could do away with the need for 10-days quarantine at home on return.
The constantly changing landscape when it comes to international travel is leaving many people totally confused.
Britain’s own rules, as opposed to those in other countries, just add to the problems. Explain reports, right now, official government advice urges people not to travel (to amber list countries), but there are no laws in place to stop them.
Quarantine too is ‘open ended’. The official line is that it should be 10 days but, using the ‘test-to-release’ system, holiday-returnees can ostensibly shorten this from ‘day five’.
Thus, the latest plan is designed to clear up some of the grey areas, at the same time “further encouraging people to get both jabs”.
The idea will not accommodate travellers who have only had one jab.
For now, this is simply a plan, floated perhaps to gauge reactions and support.
The UK government has been under attack for its ‘chaotic approach’ to international travel. Former prime minister Theresa May has complained: “We are falling behind the rest of Europe in our decisions to open up … It’s incomprehensible that one of the most heavily vaccinated countries in the world is one that is most reluctant to give its citizens the freedoms those vaccinations should support.”
Former transport secretary Chris Grayling has also said the government’s decisions would cost hundreds of thousands of jobs and leave the aviation industry “decimated for the future”, while former health minister Stephen Hammond has accused the government of ignoring the data and making “illogical” choices about the green, amber and red lists.
Other countries in Europe, namely Germany, France, Spain and Greece, have already opened up to fully-vaccinated passengers from any part of the globe, though the first two still have strict policies in place with regard to British entries.
By NATASHA DONN