UPDATE 2-Portugal extends COVID-19 lockdown as overstretched hospitals struggle

(Adds European aid from France, Luxembourg, president’s address to the nation)

LISBON, Feb 11 (Reuters) - Portugal extended on Thursday a lockdown until March 1 or perhaps later to tackle its worst surge of COVID-19 infections since the pandemic began.

“The situation is still extremely serious and requires these measures to be extended not just until the end of February but probably until the end of March,” said Prime Minister Antonio Costa. “It’s not the time to discuss the end of lockdown.”

The country of just over 10 million fared better than other nations in Europe in the first wave of the pandemic, but 2021 brought a devastating surge, partly due to the rapid spread of the British variant of the virus and easing of restrictions over Christmas.

Nearly 14,900 people have died of COVID-19, with cumulative infections at 778,369.

Although daily infections and deaths have been decreasing this month, an understaffed and under-resourced health service is still struggling to treat the around 6,400 COVID-19 patients in hospitals and intensive care units.

“It is very clear: we must get to the end of spring without another threatened summer or autumn in regards to life, health, economy and society,” President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa said in a televised address.

On Jan. 15, Portugal shut non-essential services and schools, and made remote work compulsory where possible, its second lockdown since the initial outbreak in March-April 2020.

Costa said the latest lockdown led to a decline in daily cases and deaths, with the virus reproduction rate - dubbed ‘R’ - standing at 0.77, the “lowest level since the start of the pandemic”.

But Costa said the number of deaths remained “completely unacceptable.”

Several European nations offered help, with Germany last week sending more than 20 military health workers and medical equipment. Luxembourg and France also plan to send doctors and nurses to help at Portuguese hospitals.

Around 426,000 people have received one vaccine dose so far, 133,000 of them have had both. Citing delays, Costa said the country would only receive 1.9 million shots during the first quarter, less than half of what was expected. (Reporting by Lisbon bureau; Writing by Catarina Demony; Editing by Andrei Khalip and David Gregorio)