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Portugal extends COVID-19 lockdown, will plan for lifting restrictions

FILE PHOTO: A COVID-19 patient lies in the Sao Jose Hospital Intensive Care Unit (ICU) in Lisbon, Portugal, February 19, 2021. REUTERS/Pedro Nunes

LISBON (Reuters) - Portugal on Thursday extended until at least mid-March a nationwide lockdown to fight the spread of the coronavirus but its president told the government to put together a plan to gradually lift the strict rules.

Portugal waged its toughest battle against the pandemic last month when it recorded the world’s worst surge in new infections and deaths per capita for weeks, with its health service on the brink of collapse.

“Unfortunately the situation of public calamity caused by the COVID-19 pandemic continues,” President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa said in a statement, explaining that although the number of cases has dropped, the pressure on hospitals remains high.

The lockdown, however, has rapidly reduced daily case and death tolls, with just 49 deaths and 1,160 new cases on Thursday - levels last seen in October when businesses were still open.

Rebelo de Sousa said a plan to ease lockdown rules should be prepared so that, when the pandemic situation allows, measures can be gradually lifted. In May 2020 the government adopted a sector-by-sector approach to emerge from confinement.

“Future deconfinement must be planned in stages, based on recommendations by the experts and on objective data,” Rebelo de Sousa said, adding that more COVID-19 testing and contact tracing were needed so the easing of measures is a “success”.

Parliament voted to extend the lockdown until at least March 16. It came into force on Jan. 15, imposed for the first time since the initial wave. Non-essential services are closed, remote work is compulsory where possible and schools are shut.

Under Portuguese law, regulations must be reviewed every 15 days but Prime Minister Antonio Costa previously said they would likely last until the end of next month.

Reporting by Catarina Demony; Editing by Andrei Khalip and Mark Heinrich

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