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Portugal curbs travel, extends lockdown in face of world's worst virus surge

Portugal's Prime Minister Antonio Costa adjusts a protective mask during a news conference. Photo by REUTERS/Pedro Nunes/File Photo

By Sergio Goncalves and Catarina Demony

Portugal extended a nationwide lockdown until mid-February and announced curbs on international travel on Thursday, as Prime Minister Antonio Costa accepted blame for the world's worst coronavirus surge, with hospitals on the verge of being overrun.

With a population of 10 million, Portugal reported a record 303 COVID-19 deaths and 16,432 new cases, and now has the world's highest per capita seven-day averages of both new cases and deaths.

"The number of deaths is growing at an unimaginable pace," said Portugal's President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa as he addressed the nation in a prime-time speech. "The pressure is extreme...we need to act quickly and drastically."

To try to curb the spread, Portuguese nationals will be banned from travelling to other countries by air, land or sea over the next 15 days and strict checks along the 1,200-km (750-mile) border with Spain will be put in place, the government announced.

Prime Minister Costa told TVI broadcaster overnight the situation was "terrible ... and we'll face this worst moment for a few more weeks".

He said the situation had worsened partly because his government relaxed restrictions over the Christmas holiday, with the country now grappling with the more contagious 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.

Parliament voted to extend the new lockdown until at least Feb. 14. It came into force on Jan. 15 for the first time since the initial wave. Non-essential services are closed, remote work is compulsory where possible and schools are shut.

Between Portugal and neighbouring Spain, travel will only be allowed for the transportation of goods or for health reasons. Workers and Portuguese nationals returning home can cross the land border too.

Cabinet Affairs Minister Mariana Vieira da Silva also said the government could restrict flights to Portugal from certain countries when necessary. A mandatory quarantine for passengers arriving from elsewhere could also be imposed.

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 Mr Costa said there was only so much European partners could do. 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 would be extended by around two months into April as delivery delays meant the country would receive just half the expected doses by March.

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