Deadliest virus month piles strain on Portugal's government

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Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, right, talks to Prime Minister Antonio Costa, left, and Health Minister Marta Temido, center, at the end of a visit to the hospital in Lisbon, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. Portugal's government is showing signs of strain as the country reels from almost two weeks at the top of the world rankings of daily new COVID-19 cases and deaths by size of population. (AP Photo/Armando Franca)

LISBON – The pressure appears to be getting to Portugal’s government after almost two weeks at the top of the world rankings of daily new COVID-19 cases and deaths by size of population.

Recent flubs include mixed government messages on mask types and online teaching, regular pandemic news conferences discontinued without explanation, scant official information on what foreign help is coming and scandals over queue-jumping for vaccines. Then there's the recent disarray in parliament over which lawmakers will get the jab early, as well as a health chief’s sharp retort that finding fault with government pandemic planning is “criminal.”

Those episodes have combined to put the Portuguese government politically on the ropes in recent days, just as the country takes stock of last month’s devastating pandemic surge.

In January, Portugal recorded more than 5,000 death — close to half of its official pandemic total so far. Over the month, hospitalizations grew by 136% and patients in intenstive care units by 78%, pushing the public health system close to collapse.

Hopes rose Tuesday that the surge's peak may have passed, as the number of new daily cases fell for a fourth straight day. The 5,540 cases were roughly half the number reported on Tuesday last week. The intense pressure on Portuguese hospitals is unlikely to ease soon, however, because of a time-lag between new cases and hospitalizations.

Amid criticism that it has been caught flat-footed, the government has accepted help from Germany. On Wednesday, 26 German army medics, including eight doctors, nursing staff and a hygiene team along with medical equipment, are due in Lisbon to help out at hospitals.

But the Portuguese public found out about that from a detailed statement by German authorities. The Portuguese government was less than forthcoming about German help, only briefly confirming the news several hours later.

Requiring foreign help is a sensitive political issue for Portugal, recalling a 78-billion-euro ($94 billion) international bailout the country needed in 2011 amid Europe’s financial crisis. That was viewed as a national embarrassment.

The Socialist government is already smarting from accusations it was slow to react in the January surge. A fast-spreading variant first identified in southeast England in December quickly spread in Portugal in the wake of a four-day easing of restrictions over Christmas, but U.K. flights were banned only on Jan. 23.

Authorities, meanwhile, have vowed to crack down on cases of alleged queue-jumping for vaccines, with almost a dozen cases involving low-level regional officials under official investigation. In the latest case Tuesday, the mother of the head of a social care institution in northern Portugal, and the institution’s seamstress, received the inoculation last month under allegedly questionable circumstances.

Vaccines have so far been given only to residents and staff of elderly care homes where there is no outbreak, frontline health workers and security forces. The health ministry says 70,000 people have received both doses of the vaccine and 270,000 have had the first dose.

From Wednesday, the vaccination program is being expanded to some 900,000 people who are more than 80 years old or are over 50 with underlying health problems.

Health Minister Marta Temido says Portugal ranks seventh in the European Union for the number of people vaccinated in relation to population.

Temido admitted last week that the current level of stress on the public health system “was never even imaginable in hospitals’ disaster preparedness.”

But she told public broadcaster RTP that questioning whether the government was guilty of poor planning is “criminal for those people who each day, across (government) services, makes a huge effort to get things ready.”