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Pandemic reawakens Portugal’s debt crisis trauma

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Boarded-up shops and cafés, food banks under pressure, unemployment rising sharply: the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic in Portugal has reawakened painful memories of the European debt crisis just as they were beginning to fade.

Three months before the virus struck in March, the country recorded its 25th quarter of uninterrupted growth. As the scars left by a punishing EU-IMF bailout programme gradually healed, unemployment was at its lowest since 2004. The budget was in surplus for the first time in 45 years.

Less than a decade later Covid-19 has reopened the wounds of that distressing crisis, plunging the economy back into a deep recession.

“Unemployment is already skyrocketing and poverty is on the rise,” said Ricardo Baptista Leite, health spokesman for the centre-right Social Democrats, the main opposition party. “The idea that we are constantly in crisis is at the back of everyone’s mind.”

Portugal won international praise for its rapid response to the first wave of the pandemic. But it has been one of the European countries hardest hit by the second wave and among the slowest to lower the growth rate of new infections.

In a country of 10.2m people, coronavirus had claimed more than 6,600 lives by December 27 after the number of cases and fatalities began rising significantly faster in mid-November. “We need to crush the curve more quickly,” said Mr Baptista Leite, who is also a medical doctor and head of public health at Lisbon’s Catholic University. “A third wave would have devastating economic and social consequences.”

The immediate shock to the economy has been far greater than in any of the crisis years between 2009 and 2014. The Bank of Portugal forecasts that the economy will have contracted 8.1 per cent this year. Unemployment is set to reach almost 9 per cent in 2021. Some economists fear more than two-thirds of the 360,00 jobs created in Portugal over the past four years could be wiped out in 2020 and 2021.

As Portugal advances with its Covid-19 vaccination programme, people are hopeful this recession will be relatively shortlived in comparison with the previous downturn. The central bank, however, has cut its forecast for a rebound in 2021 to growth of 3.9 per cent, warning that the economy will not regain its pre-pandemic level until 2023.

A doctor is given the BioNTech/Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine on December 27 in Lisbon © Patricia de Melo/AFP/Getty

Portugal’s dependence on tourism, the sector that helped drive the country’s recent recovery, has made it especially vulnerable to the economic impact of coronavirus. Accounting for about 15 per cent of national output and 9 per cent of employment, the industry expects to lose about 60,000 jobs this year. About 45 per cent of the country’s hotels have temporarily closed. TAP Air Portugal, the struggling national airline, is to be bailed out at the cost of 3,500 jobs.

Public health spending was cut during the debt crisis but, according to the OECD, has increased roughly in line with economic growth in recent years. “One of the outstanding outcomes of 2020 was that our NHS showed it was capable of meeting the challenge of coronavirus,” said Augusto Santos Silva, foreign minister.

The virus, however, has placed Portugal’s intensive care bed capacity, one of the lowest in Europe, under intense pressure. Since late November, coronavirus patients have occupied close to 500 out of a total of about 1,125 ICU beds. Non-coronavirus patients would normally occupy 60 per cent to 70 per cent of them, meaning many surgeries have had to be postponed.

In a country where the number of nurses per 100,000 inhabitants is also below the EU average, a record number, more than 4,000, applied to their professional body for emigration papers last year. 

After the trauma of the debt crisis, many Portuguese worry about how the pandemic will affect public finances. “Public debt was already very high and will now be higher,” said Pedro Simas, a senior scientist at Lisbon’s Institute of Molecular Medicine. “I worry about the weight of the state in our economy. Portugal needs to reinvent itself with private initiative.”

The European Commission expects public debt to reach 135 per cent of gross domestic product this year, up from 117 per cent in 2019. The budget is projected to return to a deficit of 4.3 per cent of GDP in 2020. 

“We don’t have the ‘wriggle room’ we need [in terms of public debt] and that creates a sense of anxiety that affects the collective conscious,” said Mr Baptisa Leite.

Emergency bond-buying by the European Central Bank has kept down the cost of government borrowing, as it did during the debt crisis. In contrast to the bailout years, however, many voters now see the EU as a source of succour rather than austerity. Portugal, for example, is set to receive €13bn in grants by 2026 from the EU’s recovery fund — equivalent to 6 per cent of GDP — but will not add to public debt by tapping its loan component.

“There’s a feeling that we’re all in this together now,” said Eugénia Monteiro, a retired civil servant. “In the last crisis, we felt Europe was leaving us behind.”



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Marine Le Pen falls short in French regional vote

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Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National party fell short of expectations in the first round of France’s regional elections on Sunday, leaving the Les Républicains party and other centre-right politicians in a strong position for the second and final set of ballots next weekend. 

The relatively poor results for the anti-immigration RN — in a record low turnout of about 33 per cent — will also provide some comfort for Emmanuel Macron, who is expected to face Le Pen when he seeks re-election as president next year. 

Le Pen described the low turnout as a “civic disaster” that gave a false impression of the political situation. “If you want things to change, you must vote,” she said in a short speech as the results began to emerge.

Xavier Bertrand, the centre-right leader of the Hauts-de-France region in the north, was on course for re-election and received a boost to his own presidential ambitions, with early estimates from BFMTV after polls closed giving him 44 per cent of the vote, against 24.4 per cent for Le Pen’s RN. 

Recalling that the RN had been ahead in the region after the first round in 2015, Bertrand boasted in a speech of “breaking the jaws” of his far-right rivals in this year’s electoral battle. Le Pen had campaigned in the north and hoped to flip the region to her party in Sunday’s vote. 

Xavier Bertrand after casting his ballot © AFP via Getty Images

Early estimates suggested that Le Pen’s party might be within reach of a first-round lead in Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur in the south. But even there the performance was less impressive than predicted by opinion polls, which had suggested the RN would take control of the region after the second round in the first such victory in its history. 

That now looks less easy to achieve for the RN, since other parties have in the past tended to unite in a so-called “republican front” in second-round votes to keep the extreme right from power.

Nationwide, centre-right lists were forecast to receive about 29 per cent of the votes cast in the first round, against 19 per cent for the RN, 16 per cent for the Socialist party, 13 per cent for the Greens and 11 per cent for Macron’s centrist La République en Marche party. 

Incumbent parties performed well, with LR politicians in the lead in the Grand Est region in the east, Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes in the south-east and Ile-de-France around Paris. The Socialists expected to hold Occitanie and Brittany in the west.

Gérald Darmanin, interior minister, said the record low turnout was “particularly worrying”, adding: “Our collective effort must be to mobilise the French for the second round.” 

The low turnout did not fulfil the fears of Macron’s ally François Bayrou by benefiting the extreme right or the extreme left, and may have been the result of voter weariness with politics and a desire to enjoy themselves after more than a year of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

“The French have their minds on other things completely,” Brice Teinturier of polling group Ipsos told a webinar last week. “We are coming out of the pandemic . . . and the outlook for the economy is getting much better.”



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Delta variant begins to spread, threatening EU’s Covid progress

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The Delta coronavirus variant that swept the UK has become dominant in Portugal and appeared in clusters across Germany, France and Spain, prompting European health officials to warn further action is needed to slow its spread. 

While the new strain, which first emerged in India, still only accounts for a fraction of the total coronavirus cases in mainland Europe, it is gaining ground, according to a Financial Times analysis of global genomic data from the virus tracking database Gisaid. It accounts for 96 per cent of sequenced Covid-19 infections in Portugal, more than 20 per cent in Italy and about 16 per cent in Belgium, the FT’s calculations show.

The small but rising number of cases have raised concerns that the Delta variant could halt the progress the EU has made over past the two months in bringing new infections and deaths down to their lowest level since at least the autumn. 

“We are in the process of crushing the virus and crushing the pandemic, and we must in no way let the Delta variant get the upper hand,” France’s health minister, Olivier Véran, told reporters at a Paris vaccination centre on Tuesday. 

Véran said that 2 per cent to 4 per cent of virus samples being analysed in France were showing as the Delta variant: “You might say this is still low but it is similar to the situation in the UK a few weeks ago.” The FT’s analysis of Gisaid’s data suggests this figure could be higher.

Chart showing that the Delta variant now accounts for more than half of sequenced cases in parts of the US, and is growing in prevalence across the country

In Portugal, community transmission of the variant has been detected in the greater Lisbon area, where more than 60 per cent of the country’s new coronavirus cases in the past week have been identified. Non-essential travel to and from the city has been banned in an effort to prevent the spike in cases spreading to the rest of the country.

Scientists across the continent are now looking to the UK — where Covid-19 cases have tripled in the past month and the Delta variant accounts for about 98 per cent of all new infections — for clues about what may happen next and which measures may need to be taken.

After official data showed the Delta variant appeared to increase the risk of hospitalisation by 2.2 times compared with the Alpha variant, the UK government this week imposed a one month delay to the removal of its remaining coronavirus restrictions.

“The decisions the UK makes to reopen life and society will serve as a laboratory for us in Europe,” said Bruno Lina, a virologist in Lyon who advises the French government and helps co-ordinate variant sequencing in the country.

Whether the clusters of Delta infections peppering the EU turn into bigger outbreaks will depend in part on how many people have been fully vaccinated, scientists said, as well as people’s behaviour now that many restrictions on life and business are being lifted.

Chart showing that there are signs that many states are now seeing a shrinking outbreak of the Alpha variant, and a growing one of Delta

Recent UK government research has highlighted the need to complete vaccination programmes as quickly as possible. According to data gathered by Public Health England, the first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine is generally less effective against the Delta variant than with the previous strains. Two doses increases protection against symptomatic infection with Delta from 33 per cent to 81 per cent. 

While in the UK about 46 per cent of the population has been fully immunised, vaccination rates in most countries in mainland Europe are hovering at between 20 per cent and 30 per cent. About 26 per cent of the population in France has been fully vaccinated.

French authorities are currently trying to contain an outbreak in the Landes region, near the Spanish border, where 125 cases of the Delta variant have been confirmed by genetic sequencing and another 130 are suspected, representing about 30 per cent of recent infections in the area. Clusters of the Delta variant have also been identified in recent weeks in the southern suburbs of Paris and an art school in Strasbourg. 

In each case health officials have responded with the same formula: increased contact tracing and a renewed push to vaccinate people in the affected areas.

“If we keep vaccination going at a good pace, and some non-pharmaceutical interventions like masks indoors, we can still repress the circulation of the virus this summer,” said Lina, the French virologist. “This variant will displace the other ones — we must keep that in mind — but it doesn’t mean that it will lead to a new epidemic wave.”

Vaccination site in Jutland, Denmark
Denmark has only identified a small number of Delta infections, even though the variant arrived in the country at approximately the same time as in the UK. © Henning Bagger/EPA-EFE

Some scientists fear the Delta variant may have already spread further but gone undetected given that less of the genomic sequencing needed to identify variants has been completed in mainland Europe. While the UK has sequenced more than 500,000 Sars-Cov-2 genomes, Germany, France and Spain have sequenced about 130,000, 47,000 and 34,000 respectively.

“It’s costly, it’s time consuming and it was neglected,” said Antoine Flahault, director of the Institute of Global Health at the University of Geneva.

Denmark, however, has sequenced a high proportion of cases and still only identified a small number of Delta infections, even though the variant arrived in the country at approximately the same time as in the UK.

This could be explained partly, experts said, by differences in demographics and movement, including the number of cases imported into the country from regions with a high prevalence, such as India, and the living conditions in the communities into which it is seeded.

The difference in the pace of Delta’s spread across European countries remained “a little bit of a mystery”, said Jeff Barrett, director of the Covid-19 Genomics Initiative at the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridge.

Still, many experts believe that wherever the Delta variant is introduced, it will eventually become dominant. The key, they say, will be to increase the proportion of fully vaccinated people, while slowing transmission of the virus as much as possible.

“We have to keep the messaging very clear,” said Lina in Lyon. “This is not over.”

Additional reporting by Daniel Dombey, Peter Wise, Guy Chazan and Clive Cookson



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EU fails in legal bid to speed up AstraZeneca vaccine supply

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The EU has lost a legal bid to force AstraZeneca to speed up delivery of Covid-19 vaccines or risk billions of euros in fines, the latest round in a bitter battle between the bloc and the UK-Swedish pharmaceutical company.

In a ruling on Friday, a court in Brussels criticised AstraZeneca for a “serious breach” of its contract with the EU after repeated shortfalls but refused to impose a new schedule demanded by Brussels that would have required the company to deliver 120m doses by the end of June or pay fines of €10 per dose per day.

The dispute between the European Commission and AstraZeneca has severely damaged the company’s standing on the continent and in February spiralled into a diplomatic row when Brussels threatened to exercise an emergency provision of the Brexit deal to stop vaccines entering the UK via Northern Ireland.

The Brussels court ruled that AstraZeneca should provide 80m doses by the end of September. However, in practice this should have no impact on AstraZeneca, which has already delivered 70m doses and plans to provide the remaining 10m before the end of this month.

The commission insisted that the court judgment would nonetheless put pressure on AstraZeneca because it had “laid the tracks for the delivery of future doses on the basis of clear contractual principles”, including supply from British manufacturing sites.

“The company will have to follow these tracks and it can no longer argue that it cannot use the UK plants for the production of vaccines for the European Union,” the commission said.

The ruling found that the pharma company’s failure to send the EU vaccines manufactured in the UK was inconsistent with making the “best reasonable efforts” on supply required by its contract. But it did not order AstraZeneca to use UK production to fulfil the EU order.

A UK plant operated by Oxford BioMedica is nonetheless expected to start manufacturing for the EU, according to a person familiar with the matter. 

AstraZeneca was originally expected to supply up to 300m doses to the EU in the first six months of this year but that forecast was cut sharply after production problems.

With the pace of the EU’s vaccine rollout improving, using mainly Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna jabs, and some countries imposing restrictions on the AstraZeneca vaccine after the discovery of rare blood clots, there is less practical need for the doses.

Jeffrey Pott, AstraZeneca’s general counsel, said: “AstraZeneca has fully complied with its agreement with the European Commission and we will continue to focus on the urgent task of supplying an effective vaccine, which we are delivering at no profit to help protect people in Europe and around the world from the deadliest pandemic in a generation.”

Ursula von der Leyen, president of the commission, said: “This decision confirms the position of the commission: AstraZeneca did not live up to the commitments it made in the contract. It is good to see that an independent judge confirms this.”

The court is due to hold hearings in September on a second case brought by the Commission seeking judgment on whether AstraZeneca failed in its duty to deliver on the supply contract. 



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