Portugal’s current coronavirus death rate is four times higher than the European average, figures have revealed.
It remains the country with the worst daily COVID-19 death rate in the world after it overtook the UK last week. But while both Europe and the UK’s death rate have plateaued in recent days, in Portugal the surge remains with hospitals so overstretched there are only seven ICU vacant beds left on the mainland for COVID patients.
Statistics compiled by the University of Oxford research platform Our World In Data showed Portugal had a rate of 28.2 deaths per million people, based on the rolling seven-day average for daily new confirmed COVID-19 deaths.
Watch: COVID pushes Portugal's hospitals to the brink
The average death rate for Europe was 7.1 on Saturday, according to Our World In Data.
The UK remains the second currently worst hit, with a daily death rate of 17.34 deaths per million people, followed by Lebanon with 15.95, Slovakia with 15.02 and Monaco with 14.56. Ireland is in 10th spot with 9.75 COVID-19 deaths per million people.
In the middle of January, the UK had the worst COVID-19 death rate in the world, but the government insisted at the time it was “too early” to explain why.
A week later, it was replaced by Portugal at the top of the list.
According to Johns Hopkins University, there have been more than 12,480 COVID-19 deaths in Portugal and more than 720,500 cases.
On Monday, Portugal said almost half of all its COVID-19 deaths had occurred in January.
The country of 10 million people was largely spared by the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic when it began last spring, but hospitals there are now on the brink of collapse.
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Local reports tell of ambulances queuing sometimes for hours due to a lack of beds, while some health units are struggling to find enough refrigerated space to preserve the bodies of the deceased. A few hospitals have installed cold containers to ease pressure on their morgues.
Portugal has 850 ICU beds allocated to COVID-19 cases in its mainland public health system and another 420 for those with other ailments.
On Saturday, officials revealed they had only seven vacant beds left on the mainland. Indeed, authorities are so concerned that on Friday, ambulances under police escort rushed three intensive-care patients from overstretched Lisbon hospitals to a military base to be airlifted to the island of Madeira.
Austria has said it is willing to take in intensive-care patients and is waiting for Portuguese authorities to propose how many patients they want to transfer. Germany will send medical staff and equipment.
Hard-hit neighbour Spain has offered help too, but Portugal is reportedly yet to accept. Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya has told LaSexta TV both countries were in "direct contact every day, at all levels".
Officials in Portugal have blamed the increase in death rates and infections on the spread of the more contagious UK coronavirus variant.
They have also said a relaxation of restrictions over the Christmas period added to the spread of the virus.
To deal with the surge, the government has extended a nationwide lockdown until mid-February, banned non-essential travel for its nationals and imposed checks on the border with Spain.
Lisbon's streets remain largely empty, with all except essential workers confined to their homes.
"We've been at this for a year, something should have been done sooner," Marco, a 43-year-old fitness trainer whose studio has been shut since the lockdown began, told the Reuters news agency.
"It was obvious they had to do it. But I'm frustrated. There's just nothing to do," he said as he walked his dog.
Few believe the restrictions will be lifted soon.
"If in March things are good, that's great, but I don't believe it," said Maria Rita Coutinho, 69. "For as long as people don't comprehend that they've got to respect the situation, we're not going anywhere."
In January, a total of 5,576 people died from COVID-19, making up 44.7% of all deaths since last March.
Only about 70,000 people in Portugal have received two doses of a coronavirus vaccine.
Those aged 80 and over started to receive their jabs on Monday.
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