Portugal shuts schools, blames variant for COVID-19 surge

By BARRY HATTON for the Associated Press

LISBON, Portugal (AP) — Portugal’s government on Thursday ordered the closure of schools for two weeks amid a surge in COVID-19 infections that the prime minister blamed on the rise of a more contagious variant.

A nurse sorts pharmacy supplies just delivered at a new field hospital set up in a sports hall in Lisbon, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. Portugal’s new daily COVID-19 cases have jumped to more than 14,600 to set a new national record. The pandemic has gained momentum in Portugal since Christmas, when restrictions on gatherings and movement were eased for four days. (AP Photo/Armando Franca)

“The risk of this virus spreading through society has increased,” Prime Minister António Costa told a news conference. “We have seen that, in the space of a week, the variant has spread significantly.”

The proportion of COVID-19 cases attributed to the variant, which was first identified in southeast England, has jumped from 8% last week to 20% this week and may reach 60% in coming weeks, Costa said.

“Faced with this new reality, a new set of measures is required,” he said. Schools will be closed starting Friday.

Also Thursday, Catholic church authorities in Portugal announced that services won’t be held from Saturday and until further notice due to the “extreme seriousness” of the pandemic.

Portugal has the highest seven-day average rate in the world of new cases per 100,000 population and the second-highest rate of new deaths after the United Kingdom, according to data collated through Wednesday by Johns Hopkins University.

The country of 10.3 million has been in lockdown since last week but cases continue to climb sharply, setting almost daily records and threatening to overwhelm hospitals.

Health authorities reported Thursday new highs for infected people in hospital, with 5,630, and in intensive care, with 702. The 221 deaths attributed to COVID-19 over the previous 24 hours was also a record.

The government had been reluctant to close schools, despite pressure from teachers and parents. It argued that if schools closed some children wouldn’t get proper meals. Others have no computer, no access to the Internet, and don’t have their own room at home and get no help with their studies.

Costa said school canteens would remain open for needy children, while parents with children under the age of 12 can miss work to care for them and will receive 66% of their pay from the government.