landscapes of Falésia beach next to Albufeira Portugal

Portugal on tenterhooks as government prepares to present ‘reopening schedule’

As we went to press on Wednesday, very little was clear in terms of details of the government’s reopening schedule. Eight weeks of lockdown are definitely coming to an end on March 15, but no-one knows quite how. Prime minister António Costa is due to address the nation later today (Thursday) at which point citizens finally should get to learn the various contours of Portugal’s ‘roadmap to recovery’.

As the Resident went to press, there were multiple scenarios on the table:

The return of crèches, nursery schools and primary schools on Monday, along with local commerce, the sale of non-alcoholic drinks from café doorways, reopening of bookshops and auto stands;

The return only of crèches and nursery schools – with primary schools having to wait till after Easter; the reopening of bookshops (perhaps) but little else in this first ‘two week’ phase of reopening.

The return of hairdressers and barbers at the same time as the reopening of crèches, nursery schools and possibly primary schools.

In other words, nothing was clear. CIP, the Portuguese business federation, as well as CCP, the Portuguese confederation of commerce and services, and other social partners were meeting with the government on Wednesday to push for their plans for deconfinement.

Experts had their say on Monday when the bottomline message was “if…if…if”: various scenarios, various possible outcomes but no hard and fast schedule.

One thing is certain: numbers that have been plummeting so consistently will once again increase. With half the octogenarian population having received at least one shot of vaccine, and 3% of the population ‘fully protected’ with both inoculations, there is a long way to go before Portugal approaches the 70% vaccination cover deemed necessary for ‘herd immunity’. But there is a very short way to go for some businesses to collapse altogether. This is the whole Catch-22 of the government’s plan.

It was clear on Wednesday that CCP, for instance, was pushing for the partial reopening of restaurants – yet on Tuesday, tabloid Correio da Manhã – which has had a good handle on government strategy this far – said restaurants would be released from their restrictions ‘last’.

Advice from the experts at the Infarmed meeting was that the country’s emergence from lockdown should be ‘very gradual with measures that are more restrictive than they actually need to be’.

A ‘scale of risk’ was presented, showing at what point the country should ‘reopen’ with any degree of safety:

Level 5 – corresponded to an incidence of 240 cases per 100,000 inhabitants and means ‘total confinement’;

Level 4 – 120 cases per 100,000;

Level 3 – 60 cases per 100,000;

Level 2 – 30 cases per 100,000;

Level 1 – 0 cases per 100,000.

It’s increasingly clear that Level 1 is unlikely in the foreseeable future. Right now, the country is at level 3 and ‘approaching level 2’ – though the jury is out on whether it will ever get there as Portugal’s deceleration in terms of numbers has been ‘falling off’.

Experts at Infarmed basically told the government on Monday that the way forwards is to reopen on the basis that the country is still at level 4, and work from there.

That way, areas that are not so strapped by virus transmission will be able to advance more quickly through the various two-week stages for reopening.

Plotting its way through all the talk, Correio da Manhã has deduced that restaurants may get to open with outside service only (and tables of no more than four people) after the first two weeks of deconfinement (i.e. shortly after Easter) – depending of course on how numbers progress in the daily Covid bulletins.

If all goes ‘well’ with a policy of allowing eating outside, restaurants could be opening ‘inside’ by the middle to end of April.

Elsewhere, however, tourism minister Rita Marques has been clear: Portugal will be opening its doors to tourists from early May – and has every hope that this will include British tourists. On that basis, one can be sure that restaurants will have to be fully operational by then.

Vaccination ‘delays’ another stumbling block
Portugal’s vaccination programme is going as well as it can given the pan-European issues of supply.

This week, the first phase of the roll-out was ‘extended to cover teachers and non-teaching staff, as well as people with Down’s Syndrome – and DGS health chiefs approved the use finally of the AstraZeneca vaccine for the over-65s. This will help with logistics of the roll-out, but both Phase One and Two are aimed at priority groups, leaving the bulk of the country to a Phase Three that is unlikely to come round before mid-summer.

Weekend hours: restaurants refuse to comply with 1pm closures
Another uncertainty is the weekend timetables imposed during this State of Emergency. Newspapers are suggesting that whatever happens tomorrow in terms of a plan, the weekend lockdowns in boroughs of residence will persist until after Easter. Restaurants that have been operating a take-away service say they simply cannot survive another weekend of these restrictions which allow for home deliveries from 1pm but not direct sales. ‘Essential services’ also forced to close at 1pm on Saturdays and Sundays say the time has come to lift these restrictions.

British government insists it’s not safe to travel in May, no matter what Portugal says
And delivering another body blow on Wednesday was news from the UK where Brits were being told ‘no matter which countries reopen their doors, you shouldn’t be booking a holiday’.

Transport minister Grant Shapps told the British public that there are “still lots of questions” to answer about “how safe it will be in June to travel”.

The British psyche, however, is probably just as tired of all the rules and restrictions as the Portuguese. A petition calling on the British government to release Portugal from its travel ‘red list’ has been busily gathering signatures as Brits desperate to get here (many of them with holiday homes) find themselves left hanging, with no indication of when they can reach the sunshine.

By NATASHA DONN
natasha.donn@algarveresident.com