Authorities in Portugal’s Lisbon region are reintroducing coronavirus restrictions due to a surge driven by the delta variant, which now accounts for more than seven in 10 new infections in the capital.
Two months after Portugal began to ease a prolonged lockdown, the country reported 1,556 new infections on Thursday – the highest number since February 20. More than 1,000 of them were in the Lisbon region, where some 2.8 million people live, with officials warning that hospital admissions are increasing at a “worrying” level.
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The restrictions include restaurants and cafes closing at 3:30pm on weekends, with limits on how many customers can be served. Wedding and baptism venues will be allowed to fill only 25 percent of their capacity, down from the current 50 percent, while weekend travel into and out of Lisbon will not be allowed.
Though hospital admissions for COVID-19 patients remain manageable, the trend is “worrying”, Cabinet Minister Mariana Vieira da Silva told reporters.
She said the number of hospitalisations and patients in intensive care went up by 30 percent and 26 percent over the past week, respectively.
“The situation is getting worse,” she said. “We expect the number of new cases to keep going up in coming weeks.”
Vieira da Silva noted that some 700,000 people aged above 60 have not yet had their second dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Portugal is administering nearly 320,000 jabs a week, “but it’s a race against time”, she said.
Portugal was the worst-hit country in the world, in terms of weekly infections, in January. But an extended lockdown contained the spread.
Since the pandemic began, Portugal has officially recorded some 869,000 cases of COVID-19 and about 17,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.
‘On thin ice’
Authorities warned that the problem is not just in Portugal. Experts predict the highly contagious delta variant will account for 90 percent of the new infections across the European Union by the end of August.
The warning by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) on Wednesday echoed a similar announcement by the World Health Organization last week, which said the variant first identified in India was becoming dominant globally.
The estimates that the Delta variant (B.1.617.2) is 40 to 60 percent more contagious than the Alpha variant (B.1.1.7), first discovered in the United Kingdom, which is currently the predominant variant of the novel coronavirus circulating in the bloc.
On Thursday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that Europe was “on thin ice” in its battle against COVID-19 as EU leaders agreed that vaccinations should be sped up to fight the delta variant.
In what might have been her last government declaration to the German parliament, Merkel noted that the number of COVID-19 cases in the 27-nation bloc continues to decline, while vaccination rates climb.
“But even though there is reason to be hopeful, the pandemic isn’t over, in particular in the world’s poor countries,” she said. “But in Germany and Europe, we’re also still moving on thin ice.”
“We need to remain vigilant,” Merkel added. “In particular, the newly arising variants, especially now the delta variant, are a warning for us to continue to be careful.”