Three days into Portugal’s new lockdown, authorities realised people weren’t taking it seriously enough. The weekend sunshine and welcome respite from recent polar cold saw crowds on beach boardwalks, families out with their dogs and scenes that looked frighteningly reminiscent of a typical ‘everyday’. With hospitals inundated with Covid patients, the government saw no option but to crack down.
“We have to clarify the rules restricting mobility and extend the restrictive framework for measures in place,” said prime minister António Costa on Monday evening after yet another extraordinary meeting of the Council of Ministers.
This is the most serious moment in the pandemic, he stressed – a point where deaths are reaching dismal new records by the day, where hospital admissions have taken the health service to the brink of rupture and where “the health and life of every one of us is at risk”.
“This is the most dangerous level so far,” he insisted, laying out an even tougher set of restrictions that came into place at midnight on Tuesday (00.00 Wednesday).
Taking it from the top, beyond all the lockdown restrictions already in place, it is now forbidden for people to:
■ sell or deliver any article unrelated to food from the door of any commercial premises;
■ sell or deliver any kind of beverage, even coffees, from the door or hatch of hospitality establishments that are operating take-away services;
■ remain and/or consume foodstuffs in the immediate area around such establishments;
■ consume food or beverages in the street;
■ hold sales or promotions of any kind that might attract crowds;
■ attend or run day centres or even educational activities for seniors;
■ remain in public leisure spaces, like parks or gardens. Said the PM, these can be frequented, but they cannot be ‘places of permanence’. In other words, people cannot sit on park benches, reading or scrolling through their mobile phones, or even talking to others, even with a guaranteed physical distance;
■ drive to or be otherwise on their way to work without a declaration issued by their employers.
■ all businesses with more than 250 employees have 48-hours in which they have to send a list to the Authority for Labour Conditions on how many of their employees need to be physically present in the workplace (i.e. cannot work from home);
■ municipal authorities should limit access to sea or riverfronts in order to dissuade large concentrations of people;
■ movement of people beyond the confines of their own borough is once again restricted at weekends and “all establishments of any nature should close at 8pm on weekdays and 1pm at weekends, except super and hypermarkets which at weekends can function until 5pm”;
■ police checks of people in the streets and on the roads is to be reinforced;
■ paddle tennis and tennis can no longer be played on outdoor courts. Playing golf is also not allowed (click here).
Schools, however, were still left open – despite huge pressure from many quarters to see them closed (see below and ‘update’) – and tuition centres (ATLs) have been allowed to reopen, giving working parents the ‘space they need’ to function, and children the extra-curricular support that they have been missing.
Monday was a very dour moment in Portugal’s battle against Covid-19; a point where it became all too clear that the new lockdown is here to stay for as long as it takes to improve the dramatic situation.
All through the day, warnings via television news channels were loud and clear: if people do not take this latest period of confinement seriously and stay at home as much as they possibly can, the country will simply be stopped from moving forwards that much longer.
The way out of this ‘depends on each one of us’, stressed the PM – and we all have to play our part.
As various media outlets have already intimated, forecasts for the next few days are for even more deaths and rising case numbers – and this is being borne out day after day.
Tuesday’s Covid bulletin registered the highest number of daily deaths ‘yet’: 218. In terms of daily numbers, studies now put Portugal among the ‘worst in the world’ in terms of performance: the worst daily escalation of case numbers; the worst daily escalation of deaths.
Said Mr Costa: “All the previsions we have are that until January 24 pressure on the SNS health service will continue to increase.”
This means authorities are in a race to create new bed spaces and areas in hospitals for the treatment of people suffering the worst effects of the virus (click here).
As experts have warned, the national picture is likely to get worse before it gets better.
Schools may have to shut after all
The greatest question mark over the government’s handling of this intensely painful phase has been whether the new lockdown should be including schools.
PM Costa had, up till last Tuesday, been adamant that it shouldn’t. But expert and public opinions were against him: doctors, teachers, statisticians all convinced that contagions powered by secondary school pupils are not worth the ‘benefits’ of keeping young people in face-to-face education.
Distance learning doesn’t work, said the PM, but he has conceded that if the numbers remain against him – and more specifically, if the more transmissible British variant becomes dominant (as it is certainly threatening to be in the capital) then distance-learning would be the only option.
A decision on schools was set for early next week after the government and the president -expected still to be Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, following Sunday’s elections – met with specialists of medicines authority Infarmed.
UPDATE: this all changed at lightening speed on Wednesday however and has now led to the decision late last night to close the nation’s schools from Friday.
Nurses ‘exempt from responsibility’ because hospitals in “situation of catastrophe”
Ramming the message home that hospitals can’t take any more, the nurses’ entity Ordem dos Enfermeiros issued its members on Tuesday with “declarations of exclusion of responsibility” – essentially protecting them from any disciplinary, civil or even criminal actions over the treatment of patients in their care.
Said the Ordem in a statement: “In the context of the pandemic crisis, with hospitals in a situation of catastrophe, teams of nurses below the numbers recommended (under regulation 743/2019 of September 25), there are not the conditions to guarantee the provision of safe or quality care, or even the life of people.
“In spite of all their efforts to do so, (health) professionals cannot reach everyone.”
By NATASHA DONN