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Specialists defend ‘opening Portugal by regions’

As the government consults specialists on the best path forwards for Portugal’s ‘return to work’, Público has been hearing the case for opening the country up by regions, “giving priority to areas least affected”. These, as readers will be aware, include the Algarve and Alentejo – the latter being the Portuguese continental region with the least number of deaths since the outbreak hit national territory.

Explains Público, the idea of opening region by region isn’t new, but it received renewed impetus with data coming through over the weekend.

At Sunday’s press briefing giving the latest figures on Portugal’s outbreak, health minister Marta Temido revealed two ‘values’ that “could determine the strategy for lifting restrictions that have been in place since March 16”, said the paper.

These values were the country’s R0 and Rt.

The former measures the number of contagions that happen when the virus has ideal conditions for spreading (in other words without any measures of confinement in place), while the latter measures average transmission “after measures to contain propagation of the illness have been applied”.

As Marta Temido stressed on Sunday, the Rt in “some regions” increased recently – a factor that has been ‘traced’ back to the Easter weekend.

This increased risk of transmission showed authorities “that we have situations that are not the same in different districts of the country”.

Said the minister, the new values showed “we may need specific measures as we had in the recent past” (here she was referring to the ‘sanitary cordon round the borough of Ovar, lifted 10 days ago).

And as Público heard, it is difficult to reach a situation where the R0 could be much below 1 (ie a situation where one infected person goes on to infect less than one other person) for the simple reason that the virus, for now, cannot be eradicated.

These details are now all being considered in detail by politicians who have said they will only be revealing the way forwards after the Council of Ministers on Thursday.

Epidemiologist Manuel Carmo Guedes tells Público that in his opinion it is still “a little bit too early” to lift confinement in every region of the country, because the R (either 0 or t) is not yet ‘comfortable enough’.

“When we look at the map of Portugal and consider the number of cases and deaths, it’s clear there are huge differences” in terms of areas and incidences, he said. There are “two dark stains over Lisbon and Porto” – the worst affected areas – and “areas least affected by the illness, like the Alentejo”.

“In my opinion”, said the specialist who work out of the University of Lisbon’s Faculty of Science, “if we are to lift restrictions, we should do this asymmetrically, starting with regions where the risk is lowest”.

Ricardo Mexia, president of the national association of public health doctors, seemed to agree, telling the paper that “opting for regions, like for example the autonomous regions (of Azores and Madeira) where isolation is often a negative factor could, in this case, be a protective one…”

But for now, we have to wait, to hear the political decisions which come only on Thursday.

Meantime a country full of small businesses and the self-employed is aching to be allowed back to work as the economic effects of this public health crisis are growing by the day.

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