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)