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AFP
June 23, 2021

Portugal fears a fourth wave from the Delta variant

AFP
June 23, 2021

Lisbon: Portugal fears a fourth wave of the coronavirus pandemic may take hold with the highly-contagious Delta variant now accounting for more than 60 percent of new cases in the capital.

Lisbon is among a dozen places which did not move into the final phase of easing the lockdown that much of the country has enjoyed. Travel between the capital region and the rest of Portugal was banned from last weekend to try to halt the spread of the infection.

First identified in India, the Delta variant has become the predominant strain in the greater Lisbon area, according to the national health institute INSA. "We are trying to delay its arrival in other regions of the country so that people can protect themselves more through vaccination," Health Minister Marta Temido said Monday.

More restrictions may be necessary, she added, at a time when many European countries are easing such curbs for summer. "We have to assess it as we go along and we are asking for everyone’s support, to avoid as much as possible measures which carry heavy social and economic consequences."

With the number of daily cases soaring 54 percent last week, Portugal found itself ahead of Britain with Europe’s fastest growth rate for infections, according to an AFP tally of data from national authorities. Over seven days, the daily average of new infections has topped 1,100 cases, compared with 300 six weeks ago.

"We have seen exponential growth since the month of May," Lisbon University epidemiology professor Manuel Castro Gomes told AFP. "It begins with a very slow phase of growth during which everything seems under control, then it explodes," he said.

With strict confinement measures imposed from mid-January to mid-March, "we have shown that it is possible to control the epidemic without keeping people at home," the professor said. But the appearance of the Delta variant came as a "nasty surprise" with the gradual easing of safety measures well under way .

"The big question is will the vaccinations still be delivered quickly enough to counter the spread of the infection," said Gomes.

Nearly half of the 10 million population has received one dose of a vaccine and just over a quarter are fully vaccinated. However the number of Covid cases in hospital has more than doubled in a month to 450 patients.

President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa noted on Monday that current hospitalisations were only a third of the red line figure representing an overload on the health system. The nation is "very far" from the situation which required a health emergency to be declared in the six months leading to May, he said. The conservative head of state, who has no executive power, had declared there would be no "going back" to a lockdown.

But socialist Prime Minister Antonio Costa took a cautious position, replying that "no one can guarantee that we will not return to a lockdown". Meanwhile, violent extremists are abusing the coronavirus pandemic to polarise societies, spread hate propaganda and exacerbate mistrust in public institutions, Europol warned in a report on Tuesday.

Since Covid gripped the world in early 2020, there has been "a notable increase in intolerance of political opponents, while the number of individuals conducting verbal or physical violence is also increasing," Europe’s policing agency said.

The rise of right-wing extremism is of special concern, the Hague-based Europol said, pointing to at least one failed right-wing extremist attack in Belgium linked to opposition to the government’s Covid-19 measures.

Elsewhere a Czech national was arrested for threatening to ram a vehicle into a crowd if the government did not reopen restaurants and bars, the 109-page Terrorism Situation and Trend Report said.

The report showed that "in the year of the Covid pandemic, the risk of online radicalisation has increased. This is particularly true for right-wing terrorism," said Ylva Johansson, Europe’s Home Affairs Commissioner.

The worst attack happened in Hanau near Frankfurt in Germany in February last year when a gunman with suspected far-right beliefs shot dead nine people at a shisha bar and a cafe.

Europol added there were 57 completed, foiled and failed terror attacks on the continent, killing 21 people in total. However, the number of terror suspect arrests has fallen to 449 in Europe and 189 in Britain.

This was significantly lower than in 2019, when 1,004 arrests were made. But the pandemic also brought down the level of danger, Europol said. Due to lockdowns in many countries, "opportunities to perpetrate terrorist attacks with a large number of victims declined, as many soft targets like events, museums, churches and stadiums were closed or only accessible to small numbers of people," Europol said. In total, there were 10 completed attacks in the European Union last year, three in Britain and two suspected attacks in Switzerland, mainly carried out by so-called "lone wolves" incited by the Al-Qaeda and Islamic State terror groups.

Twelve people were killed and more than 47 others injured in these attacks, Europol said. EU states "assessed that jihadist terrorism remained the greatest terrorist threat" in the bloc, Europol said.