A young woman wearing a face mask enters a subway station in Lisbon on Friday, January 22, 2021. The COVID-19 surge in Portugal continues unabated and there is a new record of daily deaths, hospitalizations and patients in intensive care. (AP Photo / Armando Franca)

Ambulances waiting to deliver COVID-19 patients were queuing outside the hospital emergency rooms on Friday as the COVID-19 surge in Portugal continued unabated, setting a new record of daily deaths for the fifth straight year.

The number of COVID-19 hospital stays and patients in the intensive care unit also reached new highs in the past 24 hours and put a significant strain on the public health system, according to health authorities.

Authorities reported 234 deaths, bringing the total to 10.3 million for 9,920 in the country.

Hospitals added another 149 COVID-19 patients to their wards, with another 13 in intensive care units. The hospital’s COVID-19 wards and intensive care units are 90% full on average.

The nearly 14,000 officially reported new cases were the second highest number during the pandemic.

Portugal has the highest average 7-day disease rate in the world per 100,000 population and the highest rate of deaths. This is based on data collected by Johns Hopkins University as of Thursday.

At the Santa Maria Hospital in Lisbon, the capital’s largest hospital, more than a dozen ambulances lined up on an access road, waiting to hand over their COVID-19 patients to doctors. In some hospitals, ambulance drivers have complained of waiting for hours.

In Santa Maria, Anabela Oliveira, the hospital’s head of COVID-19 relief, said the staff were working under “brutal pressure”.

Ambulances line up in hospitals as the virus flood hits Portugal

A woman wearing a face mask walks past the closed Camoes High School in Lisbon on Friday, January 22, 2021. The Portuguese government has ordered the country’s schools to be closed for two weeks as the number of COVID-19 cases has soared. The country’s prime minister blames a contagious variant of the new coronavirus for the surge. (AP Photo / Armando Franca)

She said the hospital had also taken in overflow patients from other hospitals in the area.

“Public health will collapse if these numbers keep rising if we stay under this pressure,” she told reporters outside the hospital. “This is the most critical moment in the pandemic.”

Officials said doctors were checking the needs of the patients in the ambulance to see if they were urgent and that the hospital was close to its limit.

The Portuguese government blames the appearance of a contagious variant, first identified in the south-east of England, to be responsible for the increase. As a result, flights to and from the UK will be suspended from Saturday.

The move came a week after the UK government suspended flights to and from Portugal to prevent a variant found in Brazil from entering the UK. The Portuguese government described this decision as “absurd”.

Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa announced after a video summit of European Union leaders late Thursday that only return flights for citizens wishing to return home would be allowed between Portugal and the UK.

Tens of thousands of Britons, often retired, live in Portugal while hundreds of thousands of Portuguese have worked in the UK in recent years.

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