LISBON (Reuters) - Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa on Thursday announced a sector-by-sector plan to gradually lift lockdown measures imposed six weeks ago to combat the coronavirus outbreak.
Starting on May 4, the three-phase plan will open up different sectors of the economy every 15 days, starting with small neighbourhood shops, hairdressers, car dealerships and bookshops.
“We know this process has risks,” Costa told a news conference. “We know that as we open up various activities, the risk of transmission will increase.”
But he added, “I will never be ashamed to take a step back if necessary for the safety of the Portuguese.”
The country has reported 25,045 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus and 989 deaths, a comparatively low toll backed up by one of the highest testing rates worldwide at 37,000 tests per million people.
Its virus reproduction rate - dubbed ‘R’ - stands at 0.94, meaning each infected person passes on the virus to less than one other person. The rate of new infections has slowed since 23-25 March, health ministry figures showed.
From Monday, the use of masks will be compulsory in various spaces including on public transport, which will operate at reduced capacity.
Remote working will still be recommended where possible, and gatherings must be limited to ten people, though family members will be allowed to attend funerals.
Government officials said last week a contact-tracing mobile app was in the works to assist in the monitoring of new cases.
Costa said easing lockdown measures “does not free us from the civic duty to maintain as much social distancing as possible”.
Individual sports like golf and tennis can resume on Monday as long as changing rooms stay closed, and gardens and libraries will also reopen.
Portugal’s top soccer league Primeira Liga could be allowed to play the last ten matches of the competition, suspended on March 12, from 30 May, Costa said, albeit behind closed doors, if the health ministry grants approval.
If the outbreak continues to slow, the plan’s second phase will launch on May 18, opening up bigger stores, restaurants, museums and coffee shops but at reduced capacity.
Also on May 18, childcare centres and preschools will reopen, and Grade 11 and 12 high school students will be able to return to schools under strict restrictions, including the compulsory use of face masks.
All other school classes will continue remotely for the rest of the academic year.
Workers might be able to gradually return to their offices in June, when the third phase of plan is implemented and shopping malls, cinemas and theatres can reopen then as long as physical distancing is kept.
“We are all aware that until there is a vaccine available on the market (...) we must carry on living with COVID-19,” Costa said. “As long as there is COVID, our lives cannot be normal.”
Portugal’s health system has remained below 65% of hospital bed capacity throughout the pandemic, with nine out of ten cases treated at home and just 1% needing intensive care, Costa said.
But the pandemic is set to leave lasting scars on Portugal’s once bailed-out economy.
Around one in five workers in Portugal have been laid off since the pandemic, with unemployment skyrocketing to 380,832 people - just 10,000 below the country’s peak in 2008.
The International Monetary Fund predicted that Portugal’s gross domestic product will contract by 8% this year.
Reporting by Catarina Demony, Sergio Goncalves and Victoria Waldersee; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Alexandra Hudson