LISBON (Reuters) - Portugal may soon ease its coronavirus lockdown, but widespread use of protective equipment will be essential and the country does not rule out “taking a step back” if the situation worsens again, Prime Minister Antonio Costa said on Monday.
During a visit to one of hundreds of textile firms reorienting to produce protective gear, he praised the industry for supporting the relaxation of restrictions and said facemasks would likely be obligatory in certain locations such as schools and public transport.
“We are likely to go down a level (on restrictions), but normality will only come when we have a vaccine in a year, or year-and-a-half,” Costa said while visiting textile manufacturer Petratex, which is producing more than 100,000 masks a week.
“Until then, reopening will come with conditions - like using hand sanitizer, and masks. This industry initiative to produce them en masse is essential for public safety,” he said.
Hundreds of firms whose revenues plummeted after the state of emergency was imposed on March 18 are producing near to a million masks per week in Portugal to meet the surge in demand likely to accompany the easing of lockdowns across Europe.
As one of the few EU countries with the capacity for a fully running supply chain, the industry in Portugal hopes that by providing its European customers with the equipment needed to get back to business it can contribute to its own recovery.
“We should be producing millions of PPE per week in the next fortnight,” said Mario Jorge Machado, president of Portugal’s textile association ATP, referring to various types of personal protective equipment.
“The industry can’t survive from masks - Europe’s economy restarting is what will save us. But by supplying PPE, we could help with that,” Machado said.
Health authorities have recommended people wear masks in confined public spaces, and several municipalities have begun distributing them for free.
Portugal has so far reported 24,027 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus and 928 deaths.
Just under 30 firms have received official accreditation from product testing and certification centre CITEVE to produce masks that meet health and safety requirements, with hundreds more currently having their proposals assessed.
Some are already producing for export - Calvalex, in the country’s north, sells 90% of the 200,000 masks it produces per week to Britain, France, Spain, Ireland, Germany and the Netherlands.
Last Thursday, the government reduced value-added tax on masks and hand gel to the minimum level of 6%.
Reporting by Victoria Waldersee; Additional reporting by Catarina Demony; Editing by Alex Richardson