PHOTO: MANUEL FERNANDO ARAUJO/LUSA

Unvaccinated could be ‘banned’ from cafés, restaurants, gyms and supermarkets

Today (Thursday) will see the Portuguese government taking a new approach towards controlling the pandemic and opening up the economy. Everything points to the patchwork of restrictions and nighttime curfew in some municipalities being scrapped in favour of a much-more widespread enforcement of Covid Digital Certificates.

As the Resident went to press on Wednesday, SOL online was suggesting the certificates could be required for “access to all public spaces from events to shows, restaurants, cafés, gymnasiums and supermarkets”.

The rules will be kept in place until “at least October, when it is hoped that 85% of the population will have completed their two doses of vaccination”.

According to the author of the proposal, pneumologist Raquel Duarte, the objective is to reduce the risk of exposure to the virus, at the same time as allowing the economy to reopen.

These are strategies announced recently by France, Italy and Israel, explains SOL – not adding that, in France, certainly the plan has not extended to being enforced for entry into supermarkets, and it has already seen massive demonstrations by furious citizens.

For now, these are still just proposals: government ministers will be making their decisions at the Council of Ministers to be announced at a press conference later this afternoon (Thursday, July 28).

On Tuesday – following the first meeting in almost two months between powermakers and expert advisors – António Costa insisted his government viewed the occasion as a way of getting “the maximum information possible”.

The morning session at Infarmed was an opportunity to listen to “specialists, investigators and technicians at a time when the process of vaccination is progressing throughout the country with success and in which the Portuguese continue to be exemplary in complying with measures of protection to contain the pandemic”, he tweeted.

Beyond the question of how deeply into daily life Covid Digital Certificates will be allowed to bite is the issue of whether or not the government will decide that the vaccination of healthy children over the age of 12 is as fundamental in reaching a point of herd immunity as some experts seem to believe it to be.

The ethics of vaccinating developing children has divided the medical profession, with many specialists insisting there is no data to prove that the benefits of vaccination in this age group outweigh the risks.

But there are two ‘fundamental problems’ (in the mindset of experts) in not forging forwards with vaccinations in children.

The first is that the ‘magic 85%’ now considered necessary for the attainment of herd immunity will be much harder to reach; the second is that, without vaccinations, the virus could run rampant in school communities, forcing further upset to academic schedules as classes would have to go into isolation.

There are equally those who argue that herd immunity is a pipe dream (as new variants will appear all the time) and positive cases among schoolchildren will, in the main, be ‘undramatic’, in that children invariably recover quickly, if indeed they show any symptoms of the virus at all.

And this is where the whole ‘construct’ starts to fall: experts are giving their opinions on mathematical models of a virus that is still developing – and on the basis that vaccines are the answer.

As the Infarmed meeting heard, vaccines reduce the risks posed by SARS-CoV-2, but they don’t eliminate them.

INSA public health institute specialist in epidemiology Ausenda Machado explained that first doses, for example, of the mRNA vaccines confer 37% protection against infection in the 65-79 year age grouping, but only 35% in the over 80s. That increases with the second dose to 78% and 68% respectively.

As experts were giving the government their viewpoints on Tuesday, Sky News in UK was explaining that “of those dying of Covid-19 in recent months, a comfortable majority – around 64% – had received at least a single dose of one of the vaccines.

“It is there in black and white on Public Health England’s data tables: of the 460 people who died between February and July having tested positive for the Delta variant, 289 had been double-jabbed; some 65 had received one dose and 165 had not been vaccinated at all,” wrote economics and data editor Ed Conway.

In other words, the government here has to weigh up all these ‘realities’ before choosing whether to move forwards with policies based on vaccines that are certainly not infallible.

Whatever the Council of Ministers finally decides, mathematician Henrique Barros said there will be another wave of coronavirus infections in the autumn, “but smaller” (again because by then it is understood more citizens will have been vaccinated).

He said the new wave will be precipitated by the colder weather: every 5°C drop in temperature leads to a 30% increase in cases, said Mr Barros – suggesting these new cases will have “little relevance” when it comes to hospital admissions and serious illness/deaths.

Meantime, the understanding coming out of the Infarmed meeting is that Portugal will have reached the point where 70% of the population is fully vaccinated by early September, with October 3 being the date by which 85% should have received both doses of vaccine.

A four-point plan (see panel) put forward by experts outlined a way forwards where masks could be dropped from being worn in the street from September, but the overall measures of physical distancing, hand-washing and masks in interiors seem set to remain for some time to come.

One very positive point made on Wednesday by economy minister Pedro Siza Vieira is that whatever stipulations adopted regarding use of Covid Digital Certificates, they won’t be long-term. He actually referred to the likelihood of their use for only “some weeks”, saying this was preferable to seeing businesses having to close their doors.

From a foreign language newspaper’s point of view, the news that Covid Digital Certificates could be enforced for entry to cafés and supermarkets elicited a veritable storm of protest on our social media page, with some readers pointing out that they are still trying to get vaccinated but do not qualify because they have yet to be given an SNS ‘user number’ (número de utente).

Others have referred to European Council resolution 2361, 7.3.2 which says that no-one should be discriminated against “for not having been vaccinated due to possible health risks or not wanting to be vaccinated”.

There is a lot for the government to decide.

Four-point plan
Level 1
Up to August 8
(with between 50% to 60% of country vaccinated):
Restaurants and bars open with up to six to a table inside, 10 to a table on terraces;
Inside events restricted to 50% capacity;
Outside events to comply with use of mask wearing/physical distancing.

Level 2
between August 8-September 5
(with between 60% to 70% vaccinated):
Restaurants to have up to 15 people per table outside;
Inside events to reach 75% capacity.

Level 3
between September 5-October 3
(with between 70% and 85% vaccinated):
Restaurants with up to eight per table inside, no limit on terraces;
Inside and outside events with normal capacity;
Physical distancing still to be maintained in open air situations but masks to be dropped.

Level 4
from October 4
(with more than 85% vaccinated):
Compliance with ‘general measures’ (ventilation of interiors/physical distancing/frequent handwashing etc.)

By NATASHA DONN
natasha.donn@algarveresident.com