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Portugal govt under fire over record COVID-19 figures

Portuguese health authorities said they had recorded 218 coronavirus deaths in 24 hours -- the first time the figure has exceeded 200 in the country of 10 million people.

FILE: Socialist party candidate and Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa waves as he addresses the nation after winning Portugal's General Election in Lisbon on 6 October 2019. Picture: AFP.

LISBON, Portugal - Portugal counted record daily deaths from COVID-19 on Tuesday, with Prime Minister Antonio Costa under fire after being forced to tighten the latest lockdown measures.

Portuguese health authorities said they had recorded 218 coronavirus deaths in 24 hours -- the first time the figure has exceeded 200 in the country of 10 million people.

The latest fatalities bring Portugal's total COVID-19 death toll to 9,246 since the start of the pandemic.

And with nearly 70,000 new cases confirmed over the past week, Portugal has become the country with the highest infection rate relative to the size of its population, according to data collected by AFP from national authorities.

Only the tiny British enclave of Gibraltar is faring worse by that measure.

"How is such a human catastrophe possible?" Adao Silva, lawmaker from the opposition Social Democrat (PSD) party, asked during a parliamentary debate.

He accused Costa's Socialist government of an "excess of improvisation" and "a lack of credibility".

Costa vowed that "we will succeed together in overcoming the third wave" of the pandemic, while admitting that he might be forced to close schools in a bid to tackle the soaring infection rate.

After previously relying on targeted measures in the worst-hit regions, Costa was forced to impose a second national lockdown on Friday.

Non-essential shops are shut, but unlike during the previous lockdown last spring, schools and universities have so far been allowed to stay open, along with the courts, churches and even florists.

Since Monday, however, Costa has tightened the rules, banning non-essential weekend trips between municipalities, and ordering restaurants to stop selling takeaway coffees -- something that was leading to gatherings on the street.

Health Minister Marta Temido had already urged people to respect the rules to reduce pressure on Portugal's hospitals, which are close to saturation.

"We are using all the resources available in the country, but there is a limit and we are very close to that limit," she warned.

Joao Gouveia, head of Portugal's association of intensive care doctors, echoed her concern, with hospital wards close to overflowing.

"We risk finding ourselves in a catastrophic situation," he told reporters.

Like other health experts, he said he was worried by the "major risk" of further infections posed by Portugal's presidential election, scheduled for Sunday.

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