How Portugal managed to have world's highest vaccination rate

Everyone in Portugal over the age of 12 is eligible for vaccination. (Reuters: Pedro Nunes)

No more lockdowns, no more masks outdoors: Portugal's bars and clubs have opened for the first time since March 2020, and restaurants are operating with no limits on the size of groups.

After Portugal achieved its goal of fully vaccinating 85 per cent of the population against COVID-19 in nine months, other countries in Europe and beyond want to know how it was accomplished.

Portugal is the country with the highest percentage of the population fully vaccinated anywhere in the world, according to Oxford University's Our World in Data.

Of those eligible for vaccination — everyone in Portugal above the age of 12 — the percentage of people fully vaccinated is approaching 100 per cent.

"We have actually run out of adults to give shots to," a nurse at a Lisbon vaccine centre told the Washington Post.

The COVID-19 infection rate and admissions to hospital from the virus have dropped to their lowest levels in nearly 18 months.

It's masks off for pedestrians in Portugal. (AP: Armando Franca)

"As most of the restrictions imposed by law disappear, we are going to enter a phase that is based on the responsibility of everyone," Prime Minister Antonio Costa said recently.

Customers at entertainment venues have to show a digital vaccination certificate or a negative COVID-19 test.

Masks are still compulsory on public transport as well as in hospitals, nursing homes and shopping centres.

Leaving politics out of it 

Much of Portugal's success has been attributed to Vice Admiral Henrique de Gouveia e Melo who, in February, was selected to head up Portugal's COVID-19 vaccination task force.

Henrique Gouveia e Melo says vaccination efforts need to be led by people who are not politicians. (AP: Armando Franca)

At the time, Portugal was in its worst phase of the pandemic — it was among the hardest-hit countries with its public hospitals near collapse.

Promised vaccine deliveries were not arriving. Meanwhile, jockeying for vaccinations was threatening to undermine public trust in the rollout.

Like Australia, Portugal has put a military man in charge of its COVID-19 vaccine rollout.

He told the New York Times that keeping politics out of the effort was the key to success.

"They need to find people who are not politicians," he said.

So he assembled a team of mathematicians, doctors, analysts and strategic experts from the Portuguese army, navy and air force.

Portugal will soon see 100 per cent of its eligible population fully vaccinated. (AP: Armando Franca)

Portugal began to inoculate at the same pace as other European Union nations but, as anti-vaccination movements grew elsewhere, Portugal — where only around 3 per cent of the population consider themselves vaccine "deniers" — sped up its rollout, Vice Admiral de Gouveia e Melo said.

Portugal began using large sports facilities around the country to set up what he called a "production line": A reception and processing area, a waiting room, cubicles where injections were given; and a recovery area.

He used soldiers at the Lisbon military hospital to figure out the fastest flow of people through a building.

A major push came with what he described as a "tsunami" of vaccine deliveries in mid-June.

Tiago Correia — an associate professor in international public health at Lisbon's New University's institute of hygiene and tropical medicine — says the public view of Gouveia e Melo as the principal factor in the successful rollout was an "exaggeration" of his role.

A key factor, Dr Correia said, was the traditional consenting attitude in Portugal toward national vaccination programs.

Its vaccination rate for measles, mumps and rubella, for example, is 95 per cent — one of the EU's highest — and there is no significant anti-vaccination movement.

Not yet 'mission accomplished'

Portugal has seen more than 1.07 million people infected with COVID-19 — around one in 10 of its population — and around 18,000 deaths.

Claudia Boigues, a woman waiting with her 15-year-old son who had just been vaccinated, said she marvelled at Portugal's swift rollout.

"I never thought we'd reach 85 per cent … but now we deserve congratulations."

Sports centres across Portugal were converted into vaccination hubs. (AP: Armando Franca)

Vice Admiral Gouveia e Melo will soon be able to say "mission accomplished" for his immediate goal.

However, with significant vaccination hesitancy in some wealthier countries and many poorer countries without sufficient doses, he is under no illusion that virus variants could come back to torment Portugal.

"I'm not concerned if we are number one, two or three [in terms of vaccination]. What I want is to control the virus, to vaccinate as many eligible people as possible so the virus doesn't have room to manoeuvre."

Vice-Admiral de Gouveia e Melo says rich countries are over-vaccinating while poor countries are left behind. (AP: Armando Franca)

"We are over-vaccinating in richer countries and then there is zero vaccination in poorer countries," he said.

"I can't agree with that, not only due to ethics and morals, but [also] because it's not the best strategy and rational attitude."

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