Portugal eases restrictions as COVID-19 vaccination rate tops 70%

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People wait in a COVID-19 vaccination centre, as Portugal resumes vaccination with AstraZeneca shots after a temporary suspension, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Seixal, Portugal, March 22, 2021. REUTERS/Pedro Nunes//File Photo

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LISBON, Aug 20 (Reuters) - Portugal has decided to loosen restrictions on the number of people allowed in restaurants and cultural venues two weeks earlier than planned, a government minister said on Friday, as the vaccination campaign moved faster than anticipated.

Cabinet Minister Mariana Vieira da Silva said the number of people allowed to sit together inside restaurants or cafes rose to eight from six, and to 15 from 10 for outside seating.

Cultural events, weddings and baptisms can fill up to 75% of the venue's capacity, up from 50%. Cultural venues, restaurants and other businesses can stay open until 2 a.m.

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"The pandemic is not over," she told a news conference. "It has surprised us with new variants we did not expect. It is our responsibility to continue monitoring its evolution and maintaining necessary behaviours to control the pandemic."

Negative tests or a digital certificates remain required for dining indoors on weekends and holidays, and staying at hotels.

Portugal ramped up its vaccination campaign over the summer after a slow start and as the surge of the Delta variant in June worried authorities, reeling from high levels of contagion in early 2021.

Cases have plateaued since the end of July at around 3,000 a day. The reproduction rate "R" has risen slightly in August but remained below 1, government data showed, indicating that the spread of the pandemic is slowing.

Portugal reported 2,507 new COVID-19 cases on Friday and 9 deaths, bringing the total tally to 1,014,632 cases - or roughly one in ten Portuguese - and 17,622 deaths.

As of Thursday, 70% of the population was fully vaccinated, health ministry data shows. Vaccination of 12-15 year-olds is due to begin on Saturday, with the aim of getting the age group fully vaccinated by the beginning of the school year.

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Reporting by Victoria Waldersee, Patricia Rua, editing by Andrei Khalip and Barbara Lewis

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