As weeks go – even weeks in a global pandemic – this one could not have been more bizarre. Sifting through the headlines, there does, however, appear to be one certainty: Portugal will be moving forwards to ‘deconfinement stage 3’ on Monday (April 19), although some boroughs with a high-case incidence rate may have particular measures placed upon them.
The exact form of how the country will be moving forwards will come today (Thursday), after the meeting of the Council of Ministers.
Tuesday saw the latest conference of experts at Infarmed (national medicines authority) and the balance coming out seemed ‘positive’.
But Wednesday saw newspapers hinting that President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa has lost his habitual optimism, and now doesn’t appear as gung-ho about lifting Portugal’s State of Emergency at the end of April.
That doesn’t mean the economy won’t open up – airlines are starting to operate on a larger scale into the country, particularly from the UK (see story on page 11), it simply means the government will continue to have power to impose restrictions on ‘normal liberties’ that it wouldn’t have if the State of Emergency ended.
There is so much ‘not adding up’ in this picture that we will take it from the positive to the negative.
The positive is that “Portugal has a very much lower Covid incidence level than the majority of European countries”.
This came out at the beginning of the Infarmed meeting on Tuesday, along with the information that the vaccination programme – albeit slow and hampered by supply issues – has had a clear effect on the number of elderly citizens becoming seriously ill and dying.
As much as media stories bang the drum of ‘doom and gloom’ about rising Rt (transmission), the reality is that transmission is not translating into pressure on the nation’s hospitals.
Indeed, hospitals haven’t been this ‘free from pressure’ since last September, when the country was still enjoying the summer season, full of visitors from all over the world.
Another huge positive coming out of the meeting was the acceptance, finally, that the formula for quantifying a borough’s incidence rate has been fairly bonkers.
Mathematician Óscar Felgueiras opened the door for a new indicator to be considered (before radical decisions on ‘pausing’ reopening are made). He termed it “adjusted incidence” – a reading that takes the real situation of a borough into account and doesn’t blow it up to suggest alarming numbers (which don’t exist, have never existed and simply terrify people for no reason).
Expresso gave a perfect example of the formula used up until now: Vimioso, in the north, was at the start of this week suffering an infection level of 249 cases per 100,000. Bearing in mind the government’s ‘red line’ is 120 cases per 100,000, it would follow that Vimioso would not be moving forwards with reopening next Monday without ‘particular restrictions’. Yet, the reality in Vimioso is that only 10 people have tested positive in a borough that covers 481sqkm and has only 4,000 inhabitants.
Using Óscar Felgueiras’ “adjusted incidence” formula, a number of boroughs previously labelled ‘at risk’ will suddenly become ‘not at risk’.
In other words, it’s yet another case of authorities moving the goalposts in the middle of the game.
Health minister Marta Temido stressed last week that “we have to have confidence in that which is the evolution of science, that science has a time and we have to accompany that time speaking always the truth and transmitting what we know…”
It was a neat way of putting the word ‘truth’ into a scenario that basically sets people up to accept anything at all.
On Friday, the coordinator of Portugal’s vaccine programme vice-admiral Henrique Gouveia e Melo trumpeted pending arrival of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, saying it was going to be a game-changer in the context that it would help make up for all the lost time in the roll-out of vaccines that require two shots.
But then on Tuesday, US regulators decided to pull the vaccine from use (due to rare issues of clotting – even more rare than the issues with AstraZeneca), and Johnson & Johnson announced it wouldn’t be sending supplies to Europe as a result.
Even as we wrote this article, news was being published that the EU has decided not to renew its contracts with AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson next year. Said Italian newspaper La Stampa, leaders of the bloc have decided to stick solely with the mRNA jabs of Pfizer and Moderna (this came hot on the heels of news that Pfizer is actually increasing the cost of its vaccines for the second time in the space of three months).
Now, of course, one has to believe in the relevance of the vaccination programme: the experts at the Infarmed meeting stressed it has ‘saved between 78 to 140 lives in Portugal in the last three months’.
But, on the same day, as Portugal’s experts were giving their opinions on the country’s situation, British prime minister Boris Johnson was telling reporters in the UK that vaccines haven’t been the primary reason for numbers falling – lockdown has. Lockdown “has done the bulk of the work”, he insisted.
On the basis that England’s vaccine roll-out has been stellar in comparison to that of Portugal and the rest of Europe, it will have surprised people to hear Mr Johnson predict that as people come out of lockdown, “we will see more infection, sadly we will see more hospitalisation and deaths. People have just got to understand that”.
Could this be the reason for reports early on Wednesday morning suggesting President Marcelo seems to have ‘cast doubt’ on the end of Portugal’s State of Emergency in May?
No-one can tell – as the ‘truth’ is constantly changing.
What is due to open on Monday, April 19:
■ further educational establishments and universities
■ cinemas, theatres, auditoria and similar
■ as well as shops, malls and Lojas de Cidadão (citizens’ shops) – the latter seeing people by appointment
■ restaurants, cafés and coffee shops (with a maximum of four people at tables inside, and six outside) on current reduced timetables of up to 10.30pm on weekdays, 1pm on weekends and Bank Holidays
■ medium-risk sports
■ outdoor physical activities for groups of up to six people
■ outdoor events, with reduced audience
■ weddings and baptisms at 25% capacity.
There is one more stage due after April 19 before Portugal totally reopens. This has been scheduled for Monday, May 3 when (all being well):
■ restaurants, cafés and coffee shops will be allowed to operate without any restrictions on their usual timetables (with a maximum of six people to a table inside, and 10 on terraces)
■ all sports will be allowed
■ physical activity in the open air will be without limits on numbers, as well as classes in gyms
■ large outdoor events as well as interior events will be allowed, with limited capacity
■ weddings and baptisms can go ahead with 50% capacity.
Absent from any mentions this far has been the nightlife sector.
By NATASHA DONN