Portugal orders COVID test, vaccination proof at hotel check-in

y Catarina Demony and Victoria Waldersee

LISBON (Reuters) -Holidaymakers in Portugal will be required to show a negative COVID-19 test, a vaccination certificate or proof of recovery to stay in hotels or other holiday accommodation, the government announced on Thursday, as infections continue to rise.

Portugal’s new daily case numbers have been rising steadily in recent weeks, returning to levels last seen in February when the country was under a strict lockdown. Nearly 90% of cases are of the more infectious Delta variant.

As the Delta variant spreads, the country is struggling to salvage the usually busy summer season.

Negative tests, vaccination certificates or proof of recovery will also be required to eat indoors at restaurants in 60 high-risk municipalities, including Lisbon and the city of Porto, on Friday evenings and at the weekend.

“For a long time, the only measure we had to our disposal was limiting economic activity,” said Cabinet Minister Mariana Vieira da Silva. “With the digital certificate, and the more frequent availability of tests, we have other ways of guaranteeing security.”

Holidaymakers and restaurant customers can use the EU digital COVID-19 certificate. Rapid antigen tests will also be valid, the minister said, and can be provided by hotels at check-in. The new rules come into force on Saturday.

Children under 12 accompanied by a parent or guardian are exempt.

Portugal’s restaurant association said “there were already too many rules and restrictions” which risk driving customers away.

“This could destroy the ray of hope for many business people,” it said.

Customers and businesses who break the rules risk being fined, up to 500 and 10,000 euros respectively.

The measure will allow restaurants to reopen for dinner on Saturday and Sunday in high-risk areas, where they were forced to shut earlier for the two previous weekends.

A night-time curfew, already in place 45 municipalities, will be extended to a further 15 municipalities, including Faro, the main city in the popular southern Algarve.

Portugal, population 10 million, reported more than 3,000 daily coronavirus cases on Thursday, bringing the total since the start of the pandemic to 899,295.

Cases started to gradually increase after Portugal opened to visitors from the EU and Britain in mid-May. But daily deaths remain well below February levels with new cases primarily reported among younger, unvaccinated people.

(Reporting by Catarina Demony, Victoria Waldersee and Sergio Goncalves; Additional reporting by Patricia Vicente Rua; Editing by Victoria Waldersee and Giles Elgood)

Portugal sees biggest daily jump in COVID-19 infections since mid-February

LISBON (Reuters) – Coronavirus cases in Portugal jumped by 2,362 in the past 24 hours, the biggest increase since mid-February, official data showed on Wednesday, as authorities continued to scramble to stop the spread of the more contagious Delta variant.

Portugal, population 10 million, faced its toughest battle against the coronavirus in January but a recent surge in cases brought daily numbers to levels last seen in February, when the country was under a strict lockdown.

Portuguese health authorities have blamed the rise in cases on the Delta variant, first identified in India. It accounts for more than half of cases in the country, which has the European Union’s second highest seven-day rolling average of cases per capita.

In total, Portugal, which has fully vaccinated around 31% of its population, has recorded 879,557 cases and 17,096 deaths since the pandemic began. Most new cases are in Lisbon.

The jump in infections comes after tourism-dependent Portugal opened to visitors from the European Union and Britain in mid-May. Most businesses have reopened and, as the summer season kicks off, beaches are packed.

Britain removed Portugal from its quarantine-free travel list earlier this month and Germany declared Portugal to be a “virus-variant zone” last week, leaving the country’s tourism sector in a tight spot.

Portugal said on Monday British visitors to Portugal must quarantine for 14 days if they are not fully vaccinated. Those aged under 18 travelling to Portugal from Britain with a fully vaccinated parent or guardian will be exempt from the quarantine rule.

Authorities are speeding up the vaccination campaign and have imposed new restrictions in a few municipalities, including in the Lisbon area from where the Delta variant has spread to other parts of the country.

(Reporting by Catarina Demony; Editing by Kirsten Donovan)

UK removes Portugal from safe travel list in blow for airlines

By Sarah Young

LONDON (Reuters) -Britain has removed Portugal from its quarantine-free travel list, the country’s transport minister said on Thursday, essentially shutting down the UK’s leisure travel market and deepening the pandemic crisis for airlines.

Airline easyJet also said no new countries would be added to the so-called green list.

Britain relaunched travel on May 17 following more than four months of lockdown, with Portugal the only big destination open to UK travelers.

Transport Minister Grant Shapps told reporters that Portugal would be moved to the amber list due to rising COVID-19 case numbers and the risk of a mutation of the virus variant first discovered in India.

Over the last three weeks, Portugal has proved a lifeline for airlines and travel companies. The industry had been expecting a wider reopening this month, but instead will face weeks of cancellations and more uncertainty.

“This decision essentially cuts the UK off from the rest of the world,” easyJet said in an emailed statement.

The airline also said that the UK would be left behind as governments across Europe start to open up travel.

Shares in easyJet and British Airways-owner IAG and Jet2 were down 5%, while Ryanair and TUI, which has a big German customer base as well as British, lost 4% on fears that Europe would lose another peak travel season, when millions of Britons usually head to southern Europe in July and August.

The industry is already weakened by 15 months of lockdowns and it will be severely financially challenged if there is no reopening this summer.

Many companies had hoped for bumper trading given that Britain has one of Europe’s highest vaccination rates and is gradually reopening its domestic economy.

But worries over the spread of new more transmissible variants of coronavirus and the vaccine’s efficacy against them are now threatening that plan.

Data provided by Cirium showed that Ryanair and easyJet had been scheduled to operate over 500 flights from the UK to Portugal in June. The airlines had all added flights to the country in May.

Under the UK system, travel to countries rated amber or red is not illegal but it is discouraged. Spain, France, Italy and the United States are on the amber list which means quarantining on return, restricting demand from Britons for what are usually the most popular destinations.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson had warned the travel industry that protecting the country’s vaccine roll-out was his priority.

“I want you to know we will have no hesitation in moving countries from the green list to the amber list to the red list if we have to do so. The priority is to continue the vaccine rollout, to protect the people of this country,” he told reporters.

Travel companies and airlines have criticized the government for being overly cautious, saying that increasing vaccination rates and testing can make travel safe.

(Reporting by William James and Sarah Young, Editing by Paul Sandle, Kate Holton and Andrew Heavens and Kirsten Donovan)

High anxiety: World’s longest pedestrian suspension bridge opens in Portugal

By Catarina Demony and Miguel Pereira

AROUCA, Portugal (Reuters) – Hugo Xavier became one of the first people to cross the world’s longest pedestrian suspension bridge when it opened on Thursday near his tiny hometown of Arouca in northern Portugal.

“Oh…here we go!,” the 42-year-old said anxiously as he gathered enough courage to step onto the see-through metal grid pathway of the 516-metre-long (1693-ft) bridge alongside his equally jittery partner and a tour guide.

Hidden between rock-strewn mountains covered with lush greenery and yellow flowers inside the UNESCO-recognized Arouca Geopark, the bridge hangs 175 meters above the fast-flowing River Paiva.

The landscape is calm, but the crossing is not for the faint-hearted. Held up by steel cables and two massive towers on each side, it wobbles a little with every step.

“I was a little afraid, but it was so worth it,” a relieved Xavier said already on the other side. “It was extraordinary, a unique experience, an adrenaline rush.”

The bridge opened only to local residents on Thursday, but from Monday everyone can book a visit.

Locals hope the attraction, which cost about 2.3 million euros ($2.8 million) and took around two years to build, will help revive the region, especially after the devastating COVID-19 pandemic.

“It is a breath of fresh air for our land because it will attract more investment, more people,” said tour guide Emanuel, adding that the region was rapidly ageing as many young people moved to big cities. “It will bring a new dynamic to Arouca.”

Standing on the bridge, the mayor of Arouca, Margarida Belem, said the bridge was part of a wider strategy to encourage more people to move and stay in the region.

“There were many challenges that we had to overcome… but we did it,” the visibly proud mayor told Reuters. “There’s no other bridge like this one in the world.”

($1 = 0.8254 euros)

(Reporting by Catarina Demony, Miguel Pereira and Violeta Moura; Editing by Andrei Khalip and Raissa Kasolowsky)

Food bank, charities busy in Algarve as pandemic ravages Portugal tourism

By Catarina Demony

FARO, Portugal (Reuters) – Carla Lacerda used to earn a good salary selling duty-free goods to holidaymakers arriving at Algarve airport in southern Portugal, but she lost her job last August due to the COVID-19 pandemic and quickly ran out of cash to feed her two kids.

The 40-year-old now receives around 500 euros ($587) per month in unemployment benefits, leaving her no option but to join the queue for food donations.

“I never thought I’d be in this situation,” Lacerda said as she waited for milk, vegetables and other essential goods at the Refood charity in Faro, capital of the Algarve. “It’s sad I’ve reached this point, but I’m not ashamed.”

Lacerda is one of thousands of people whose lives have been turned upside down by the pandemic, which has ravaged tourism across the sun-drenched Algarve region and left its popular beaches and golf resorts largely deserted.

Algarve’s food bank, which has two warehouses in the region, is now helping 29,000 people, almost double the number before the pandemic.

“It’s the first time since the food bank began in Algarve that the numbers have reached such a level,” said its president, Nuno Alves, as volunteers distributed food to drivers from various charities waiting in their cars outside.

Poverty is spreading across the middle class, said Alves, with people from the crucial tourism sector worst affected. Many businesses have had to shut and some may never reopen.

In February, the number of those registered as jobless in the Algarve jumped 74% from a year ago, more than in any other Portuguese region.

‘GOING HUNGRY’

At the Faro branch of Refood, which collects unwanted food from restaurants and supermarkets and distributes it to the needy, 172 families queue for supplies every week, an increase of some 160% since the pandemic started.

“We help an architect, a teacher, a nurse, a social worker,” said coordinator Paula Matias. “It’s very sad. I’m a mother and I cannot imagine what it’s like not to have a plate of food to give to your children.”

One man in his thirties who requested anonymity told Reuters he had lost his job as a personal fitness trainer to wealthy expats because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which also claimed the lives of his brother and nephew.

He sold everything he had, from his flashy car to a fish tank, to pay the bills, but in January he had to ask for help from community organization MAPS, which now gives him food, and also psychological support after he tried to take his own life.

“I tried to be strong but I couldn’t,” he said. “Government support never arrived and I couldn’t get out of the situation.”

MAPS vice-president Elsa Cardoso said pleas for help continued to rise and that some people who had worked in tourism jobs were now homeless.

“Every day there are more people no longer able to support themselves, who have been evicted,” Cardoso said, adding that it might take a while for things to improve.

Portugal has been under a second strict lockdown since January that is only now gradually being eased.

British retiree Denise Dahl said distributing food to the vulnerable through her own organization ‘East Algarve Families in Need’ had helped her through the grieving process after she lost her husband Terje to COVID-19 in December.

“If I didn’t have this I don’t know what would’ve happened,” said Dahl, who lives in the town of Tavira, adding that the situation in the Algarve continued to worsen.

“With the lack of tourists coming in this year we expect even more families going hungry.”

($1 = 0.8522 euros)

(Reporting by Catarina Demony; Additional reporting by Miguel Pereira and Pedro Nunes; Editing by Andrei Khalip and Gareth Jones)

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)

COVID-19 surge takes toll on Portugal’s undertakers

By Catarina Demony

LISBON (Reuters) – Standing next to the sealed coffin of yet another COVID-19 victim in Portugal, funeral parlor worker Carlos Carneiro wept as the bereaved family played a record of a traditional fado song as a final goodbye.

Carneiro, 37, has been in the undertaking business for two decades helping people cope with loss, but never felt as affected by sorrow and fear as now.

Portugal fared better than others in Europe in the first wave of the pandemic in March-April, but the new year brought a devastating surge in infections and deaths, overwhelming the health service and funeral homes.

More than 14,700 people have died of COVID-19 in Portugal, with cumulative infections since the start of the pandemic at nearly 775,000.

“I have never felt this emotional, with so many consecutive funerals,” Carneiro told Reuters in a quavering voice outside the crematorium where the body of 77-year-old Matilde Firmino was turned into ashes.

“It’s hard on us. We feel it when we get home.”

Due to coronavirus rules in place to reduce the risk of contagion, funeral homes like Carneiro’s Funalcoitao near Lisbon had to quickly adapt.

Workers must wear protective gear from head to toe, bodies are placed inside white plastic bags and then in a coffin, without embalming or makeup.

Families are rarely able to see the deceased before they are buried or cremated, and Firmino’s daughter was at one point worried if it was really her mother inside the coffin.

A priest blessed the coffin in a short service held outside as family and friends sheltered from the pouring rain. “I ask God to free us from this pandemic we are living,” he said.

Carneiro said he always seeks to honor the lives of the dead, but not being able to give families the full closure they seek is taking a toll on his well-being.

“These people are not numbers…People sit on their sofas and worry about (coronavirus) numbers, but we see people and their families. We have to deal with the drama,” Carneiro said.

‘THERE’S FEAR’

His brother Alvaro, 44, said January, when Portugal reported almost half of all its COVID-19 deaths since the start of the pandemic, was the hardest month in his 24 years in the funeral business.

“We are scared of being infected, of infecting our family members at home,” he said at their family-run funeral home, which on Tuesday alone organized six services. “There’s fear.”

Funeral business associations have urged Portuguese authorities to vaccinate the sector’s around 5,000 workers as soon as possible.

“We are on the frontline so we should be considered a priority for vaccination but according to the news we are seeing there are not enough shots for everyone,” Alvaro Carneiro said. “We will have to endure this a little longer.”

A July 2020 article by two public health researchers said high death rates, restrictions, a fear of being infected and worries about their families’ wellbeing could affect funeral workers’ mental health, especially in the longer run after the daily pressure subsides.

(Reporting by Catarina Demony, Miguel Pereira and Pedro Nunes; Editing by Andrei Khalip and Angus MacSwan)

“A symbol of hope” – German military aid arrives in Portugal

By Catarina Demony and Michael Nienaber

LISBON (Reuters) – A German military plane carrying over 20 doctors and nurses together with ventilators and hospital beds arrived on Wednesday in coronavirus-stricken Portugal, where a severe rise in cases has prompted several European nations to offer help.

The German team will manage a new unit of eight ICU beds in a private hospital in Lisbon, Hospital da Luz, which was equipped but lacked the staff to operate, Health Minister Marta Temido said at the military base where the plane landed.

“Eight beds may not sound like much, but it is a lot for a health system under significant pressure,” Temido said. “The help Germany extended is of great use for a health system facing the challenges we are – highly specialized health professionals.”

The medical team, consisting of eight doctors and 18 nurses, left the military base in northern Lisbon by bus shortly after arrival. The cargo, which includes 150 hospital beds and 50 ventilators, was unloaded after their departure.

“This is a vivid sign of European solidarity and a symbol of hope,” German ambassador Martin Ney told reporters at the military base.

Austria has offered to take in 10 to 15 COVID-19 intensive care patients who would be distributed in various hospitals across the country, its ambassador in Portugal, Robert Zischg, told Reuters.

The two countries’ health and defense ministries were in regular contact and it was up to Portugal to decide whether it would accept the offer, he said.

Hospitals across Portugal, a nation of about 10 million people, appear on the verge of collapse, with ambulances sometimes queuing for hours because of a lack of beds while some health units are struggling to find enough refrigerated space to preserve the bodies of the deceased.

Although daily infections and deaths from COVID-19 in the country on Tuesday retreated further from last week’s records and fewer patients were in intensive care, doctors and nurses are still over-stretched.

The island of Madeira, an autonomous region of Portugal which took in three COVID-19 intensive care patients last Friday, will also take in another three, its regional government told news agency Lusa.

Portugal, which has so far reported a total of 13,017 COVID-19 deaths and 731,861 cases, reported close to half of all its COVID-19 deaths last month as cases accelerated.

(Reporting by Michael Nienaber in Berlin, Catarina Demony and Victoria Waldersee in Lisbon; editing by Emma Thomasson and Angus MacSwan)

As pandemic worsens, Portugal reports nearly half of all its COVID-19 deaths in January

By Catarina Demony and Victoria Waldersee

LISBON (Reuters) – Portugal reported close to half of all its COVID-19 deaths in January, highlighting the severe worsening of the pandemic in a country whose plight has caused several European nations to offer help.

Hospitals across the nation of just over 10 million appear on the verge of collapse, with ambulances queuing sometimes for hours for lack of beds and some health units struggling to find enough refrigerated space to preserve the bodies of the deceased.

Austria is willing to take in intensive-care patients and is waiting for Portuguese authorities to propose how many patients they want to transfer, the Austrian embassy in Lisbon said.

Germany will send medical staff and equipment.

Hard-hit neighbor Spain has offered help too, but Portugal is yet to accept, a Spanish foreign ministry source told Reuters, while Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya told LaSexta TV both countries were in “direct contact every day, at all levels”.

In January, 5,576 people died from COVID-19, representing 44.7% of all 12,482 fatalities since the start of the pandemic in Portugal, health authority DGS said.

Portuguese officials have blamed the huge increase in the infection and death rates on the more contagious variant of the disease first detected in Britain, while acknowledging that a relaxation of restrictions on social movement over the Christmas holidays played a role.

The association representing funeral homes warned that public hospitals were running out of refrigerated space to preserve the bodies of COVID-19 victims, and some, including Portugal’s largest hospital Santa Maria, have installed extra cold containers to ease pressure on their morgues.

Over 711,000 infections have been reported since March 2020, with 43% of those infections in January, according to DGS, whose tally increased by 275 deaths and 5,805 cases on Monday.

Portugal has the world’s highest seven-day rolling average of new daily cases per million inhabitants, according to data tracker ourworldindata.org.

With 865 coronavirus patients in intensive care and 6,869 in hospital wards, hospitals are running out of beds and there is a shortage of doctors and nurses.

Portugal has 850 ICU beds allocated to COVID-19 cases in its mainland public health system and another 420 for those with other ailments, according to the latest data.

For most, vaccination against the virus is the light at the end of the tunnel. But only roughly 70,000 people have been fully vaccinated with the two required doses so far. Those over 80 start getting their shots on Monday.

(Reporting by Sergio Goncalves, Catarina Demony and Victoria Waldersee; Additional reporting by Belen Carreno and Emma Pinedo Gonzalez in Madrid and Seythal, Thomas Seythal in Berlin; Editing by Ingrid Melander, Mark Heinrich and Bernadette Baum)

Portugal extends lockdown as COVID-19 brings health service to its knees

By Sergio Goncalves and Catarina Demony

LISBON (Reuters) – Portugal’s parliament extended a nationwide lockdown on Tuesday until mid-February, as Prime Minister Antonio Costa accepted blame for the world’s worst coronavirus surge, with hospitals on the verge of being overrun.

With 10 million people, Portugal reported a record 303 COVID-19 deaths and 16,432 new cases on Thursday, and now has the world’s highest per capita seven-day averages of both new cases and deaths.

Costa told TVI broadcaster overnight the situation was “not bad, but terrible … and we’ll face this worst moment for a few more weeks”.

The situation had worsened partly because his government relaxed restrictive measures between Christmas and the end of the year, he said, with the country now grappling with a virulent new variant of the virus first detected in Britain.

“There were certainly errors: often the way I transmitted the message to the Portuguese … and, when the recipient of the message did not understand the message, then it is the messenger’s fault,” he said. The lockdown should, in principle, start reducing infection numbers next week, he added.

Some hospitals are running out of beds, others see dwindling oxygen supplies, and doctors and nurses are over-stretched. Staff at the Cascais Hospital, near Lisbon, told Reuters they were exhausted. “There is no end in sight,” one nurse said.

The new lockdown, which came into force on Jan. 15 for the first time since the initial wave of the pandemic, will last at least until Feb. 14. Non-essential services are closed, remote work is compulsory where possible and schools are shut.

“Unfortunately we are dealing with a disease that surprises us every day and we do not give up… we continue to fight every day,” Health Minister Marta Temido told parliament before lawmakers voted to extend the lockdown.

Germany said on Wednesday it was willing to help and had sent military medical experts to Portugal to assess what kind of support it could bring.

But Costa said there was only so much European partners could do. “One should be cautious” about the idea of sending patients abroad from Portugal, which has a land border only with already over-stretched Spain.

Regarding possible German aid, he said: “In everything Portugal has asked for, unfortunately they have no availability, namely doctors, nurses.”

Officials said the first phase of Portugal’s vaccination plan will be extended by around two months into April as delivery delays mean the country will receive just half the expected doses by March.

(Reporting by Victoria Waldersee, Sergio Goncalves and Catarina Demony; Writing by Ingrid Melander and Catarina Demony; Editing by Andrei Khalip, Larry King, Peter Graff)