Portugal in 'terrible' phase of pandemic; little foreign help expected, PM says

Portugal is in a terrible phase of the coronavirus pandemic and can hope for only limited help from abroad, Prime Minister Antonio Costa said, as hospital staff warned they were being overwhelmed.

With a total of 668,951 confirmed Covid-19 cases and 11,305 deaths, including a record 293 dead on Wednesday, Portugal has the world's highest seven-day average of new daily cases and deaths per million inhabitants.

"There is no point in feeding the illusion that we are not facing the worst moment," he told TVI broadcaster overnight. The situation was not bad but terrible, he said, "and we'll face this worst moment for a few more weeks, that is for sure."

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 and sometimes struggled to stay motivated. "There is no end in sight," one nurse said.

Germany said on Wednesday that it was willing to help and had sent military medical experts to Portugal to assess what kind of support it could bring.

But Costa warned there was only so much Germany and other European partners could do. "One should be cautious" about the idea of sending patients abroad from Portugal, which, standing at the southwestern tip of the continent, only has a land border with already over-stretched Spain.

Regarding possible German aid, he said: "In everything Portugal has asked for, unfortunately they have no availability, namely doctors, nurses."

Costa said the situation had worsened partly because his government relaxed restrictive measures between Christmas and the end of the year, but also because of the virulence of a 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, I have no doubt about it," he said.

In a rare note of hope, he did add that the lockdown measures decided last week should, in principle, start having an impact on contagion numbers next week.

More than 20 ambulances with Covid-19 patients queued outside Portugal's largest hospital, the Santa Maria in Lisbon late on Wednesday as they waited for beds to become available, in an illustration of how stretched hospitals are.

Three major doctors' unions said in a statement that thousands of its members had not yet been fully vaccinated and feared exposure to the virus.