Portugal’s COVID-19 nightmare eases but end of lockdown still out of sight

By Catarina Demony and Miguel Pereira

LISBON (Reuters) – While the number of COVID-19 cases in Portugal is falling, the the far slower decline in hospitalizations and intensive care patients has left Lisbon residents resigned to the nationwide lockdown lasting for many more weeks.

“I’m a bit optimistic but we cannot think everything is fine,” said Ana Maria, 76, as she walked around a Lisbon neighborhood. “People must continue to be careful. The lockdown should continue for a bit longer so that we can get rid of this once and for all.”

Portugal, a nation of just over 10 million people, faced its toughest battle against the coronavirus pandemic last month. For weeks it had the world’s worst surge.

The nightmare has eased with the lockdown, with daily case and death tolls falling rapidly to just 63 deaths and 1,032 new cases on Tuesday – levels last seen in October when businesses were still open.

But the number of people in hospital remains around double the level authorities say must be reached to alleviate measures. A lockdown put in place on Jan. 15, shutting non-essential services and schools, is expected to last until at least the end of March.

“It is going well but the lockdown isn’t going to end for now,” Antonio Formiga, 58, said as he stood outside the bakery where he works. “We thought it would even if at a slower pace. We really need it (to end) because the business is reaching its limit.”

Health experts warned that lifting the lockdown too soon could lead to a rise in cases caused by the variant initially discovered in Britain, currently responsible for almost half of the country’s cases.

Another surge would be catastrophic for a fragile health system.

Germany sent on Tuesday a replacement team of military doctors and nurses to take over from the first deployment sent three weeks ago to prop up Lisbon’s under resourced hospitals.

“The costs of this endeavor are high but when it comes to European solidarity that’s unimportant,” German Ambassador Martin Ney said at the military base.

Portugal’s total number of infections is 799,106, and the total death toll stands at 16,086 people.

(Reporting by Catarina Demony and Miguel Pereira, Additional reporting by Patricia Vicente Rua, Editing by Victoria Waldersee and Angus MacSwan)