LISBON — The Portuguese government on Thursday announced the closure of schools and universities in an effort to stem a COVID-19 resurgence that has pushed the country to the top of global infection rankings.
“Despite extraordinary efforts by schools to function normally during this crisis … the precautionary principle means we have to interrupt all teaching activity for next 15 days,” said Prime Minister António Costa.
“We have an even greater civic duty to respect the lockdown now, so children can get back to school quickly,” he said.
Costa said the decision was due to the growth of the highly contagious new coronavirus strain identified in the U.K. last month. It now accounts for 20 percent of cases in Portugal and could reach 70 percent in the coming weeks, he warned.
On Wednesday, the nation of 10 million registered 14,647 new cases, the worst since the pandemic started. Daily rates of over 10,000 have become the norm since New Year.
Portugal’s Roman Catholic Church also announced it was suspending religious services from Saturday.
Last week, Costa excluded education from a new national lockdown, saying he would not “sacrifice the current generation of students.” The soaring infection rates have forced him to change tack.
Hospitals are struggling to cope. The death rate has doubled in two weeks, with nine COVID-19 fatalities every hour over the past three days.
“In a single 12-hour shift I’ve never seen so many people die,” Ricardo Baptista Leite, a doctor and lawmaker with the center-right opposition, posted on Facebook Monday, after working in the coronavirus ward of a hospital near Lisbon.
“The pain and suffering are indescribable. The sense of impotence because we can’t do more,” said Baptista Leite, who has been a vocal campaigner for a tighter lockdown. “This is a war scenario and we are losing.”
Many blame the virus resurgence on the government’s decision to relax social-distancing restrictions over Christmas. Costa has also been criticized for a slow response. The national lockdown announced last week excluded courts, religious services and top-flight football, as well as schools.
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