European country sees seven-day new case average hit 100,000, the world’s highest, according to Johns Hopkins University

Prime Minster António Costa says he should not have loosened restrictions over Christmas

Portugal last week joined the ranks of countries hit hardest by

, reporting on Thursday the world’s highest per capita seven-day average for new cases, according to Johns Hopkins University, mirroring a surge seen in other European nations.

Infections rose after Covid-19 restrictions were lifted during Christmas holidays. On December 24 and 25, free movement between districts was allowed and restaurants stayed open until 1am.

Prime Minister António Costa said in a parliamentary debate on Wednesday that in hindsight he should not have loosened the rules. The following day, he added new restrictions, mainly the closing of all schools, to a nationwide lockdown unveiled the previous week.

Carlos Antunes, a mathematician at the University of Lisbon, has been running epidemiological models for Covid-19 in Portugal and advises government officials on mitigation strategies.

He said that besides the flurry of movement caused by the exemptions for the holiday season and the delay in closing schools, Portugal’s contact tracing system also took a break during Christmas week, resulting in 5,000 cases being missed by the health authorities.

“At this moment our contact tracing capacity is still well below what is necessary to control this wave. Our estimates indicate that we are letting slip between 2,300 to 2,500 cases daily,” he said.

“The peak of this wave could reach 17,000 daily cases in two weeks.”

Fatigue from dealing with previous waves was also a contributing factor as was the false belief that holiday gatherings would not lead to a third wave, he said.

“The fact that a great number of people got tested to ensure they were negative and able to safely visit their families led to a general dropping of the guard, increasing carelessness and the violation of sanitary rules.”

Portugal’s response reflects how European governments have struggled to deal with a winter resurgence of Covid-19 infections as the public flouted the rules, coming amid a global push to inoculate people against the coronavirus.

Despite the importance of Christmas to family gatherings in Europe, some countries, such as the Netherlands and Czech Republic, opted to keep lockdowns in place during the holiday. And even before the Christmas holidays, some European countries tightened pandemic rules as winter infections climbed.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had promised a normal Christmas in early December, but he retracted that after a surge in cases, driven by what epidemiologists call a more transmissible variant of the virus.

Portugal did not close its borders to Britain after the discovery of a mutant strain that British epidemiologists said was behind a December surge in cases. On Wednesday, Ricardo Jorge, director of Portugal’s National Health Institute, said the mutant strain was responsible for 13 per cent of Covid-19 cases in the country and that over the next three weeks the figure would rise to 60 per cent.

Sweden had been seen as an outlier in the global pandemic response, rejecting lockdowns and asking its citizens to voluntarily follow government guidelines. In November, however, the government began restricting large social gatherings and threatening fines in what pundits called a policy U-turn.

Unlike in China, where the ruling

can impose policy without opposition, European governments have to tread a fine line between imposing restrictions, legal leeway and keeping the voting public onside.

Germany’s federal government, which grants significant autonomy to regional governments, is a case in point.

On December 9,

made an unusually emotional plea in parliament, asking citizens to follow guidelines after several states resisted her push for tougher lockdown rules.

However, she also said it was inevitable Germany’s approach to the pandemic would be different from that of countries that “look more like dictatorships”.

Nevertheless, calls for lockdowns resembling China’s in all but name have grown across Europe, especially in countries facing high infection rates, like Britain and Portugal.

In Britain last week, Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg pushed back against criticism from Labour MP Rachel Haskell who accused the ruling Conservative party during a parliamentary debate of implementing a “half-hearted” lockdown.

“The lockdown is quite extraordinary. The infringements on people’s liberties are unprecedented in this country,” Rees-Mogg said.

“We have not required the type of aggressive enforcement seen in other countries because the British people have joined in with this effort as a whole.”

In Portugal, the experience and comments from locals suggest adherence to government restrictions has been poor.

In November, Portugal’s government imposed 11pm closing times on clubs, bars and other social venues, but throughout the winter, 25-year-old Noor Al-Baker, who works in cybersecurity, said she received invites to late night parties all over Lisbon, Portugal’s capital.

Al-Baker was at one for her birthday party in early January. “It was 12.30 at night, the party was at an Airbnb in Lisbon, in a small T2,” she said referring to a flat.

“We left soon after and were on the street trying to catch a Bolt [Uber-like taxi] when two police cars drove by with loads of people on the street, they didn’t even stop, and this was in Avenida da Liberdade [in the city centre]”

Portuguese MP and health professional Ricardo Baptista Leite has repeatedly called for the government to impose an absolute lockdown to stem the January spike in cases.

On Sunday, he posted a video on social media in which he described his experience volunteering in a Covid-19 ward at a Lisbon hospital.

“This is a war scenario and we are losing. It’s time to say enough,” he said.

Popular sentiment in Portugal is also leaning towards tougher regulations. Miguel Marques, 26, who works in the technology industry, said the government’s mistake was to assume people would follow the rules despite the lack of enforcement.

“For us, rules are guidelines,” he said. “The government’s rules are not black and white: it says the hairdressers must close but then huge venues like CascaisShopping are full of people.”

There is data showing that Portuguese do follow Covid-19 lockdowns. A paper published in November by Portugal’s University of Coimbra researchers analysed mobility patterns of citizens during the first lockdown in March, concluding that the population largely complied with government restrictions.

“As the main result of this study, it was observed that the Portuguese population reacted quickly, adopting social distancing, and changing their mobility patterns, even before the government decreed restrictive measures,” it said.

However, Marques said that on Monday, three days after the restrictions began, Lisbon’s streets and public transport were full of people.

“Everyone is going out to the street to drink coffee, including me, but this is what’s wrong, we need to change this,” he said.

“The national health service is at full capacity, people are going to start dying in serious numbers, if I was a doctor I would be frustrated seeing people outside drinking coffee and smoking.”

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