Portugal is now Europe’s vaccination frontrunner

… after remarkable turnaround

Henrique Gouveia e Melo
Henrique Gouveia e Melo

The FT reported in detail recently that a former submarine commander has almost single-handedly instilled confidence in a vaccination programme that had a faltering start in Portugal.

Henrique Gouveia e Melo, the former submarine commander who has become a quiet hero of Portugal’s fight against COVID-19, could not stop his voice cracking with emotion when he was greeted by a prolonged ovation at a crowded vaccination centre. “I couldn’t help it,” said the grey-bearded vice-admiral, who heads the country’s vaccination task force, referring to the moment. “People were . . . saying to me “we’re with you”.

A week earlier, he won plaudits for his handling of an anti-vaccine protest, calmly telling angry demonstrators that “the real killer is the virus” as some in the placard-waving crowd shouted “murderer” at him. Such protests have been rare in Portugal. An overwhelmingly positive response from the public to Gouveia e Melo is one of several factors that have made the country a frontrunner in the global race to vaccinate against Covid. About 83% of its population are already fully jabbed and 86% have received at least one dose (as of 28 September), which meant it remarkably achieved one of the highest vaccination rates in the world alongside the likes of the United Arab Emirates and Singapore.

Portugal now leads EU counties in vaccination stakes

The FT goes on to report that Portugal now leads a group of EU countries that have overtaken Israel and the UK in the vaccination stakes — where the double-jabbed rate stands at 61 per cent and 66 per cent respectively — despite the pair’s strong early lead. “What matters is vaccinating enough people to protect the whole group,” Gouveia e Melo told a media briefing this month. “Being first, second or third in the world is not important.” He said he was confident that 86 per cent of Portugal’s 10.3m residents would be fully vaccinated by the end of September. This, he said, was the maximum level feasible, given that children under 12, people with certain medical conditions and vaccine-resisters — estimated to make up about 3 per cent of the population — will not receive jabs. Health experts attribute Portugal’s vaccination success to constructive co-operation between medics, the military and local officials. They also cite the public’s memories of how vaccination was used successfully against measles, polio and other deadly diseases.

Pedro Simas, executive director of the Católica Biomedical Research Institute in Lisbon, believes the strong public adherence to the programme has its roots in Portugal’s first national vaccination plan in 1965. “It was tremendously successful and people have understood and trusted the benefits of vaccination ever since,” he said. Marta Temido, health minister, said Portugal’s national health service has always had a strong focus on primary care. “Our doctors and nurses have been at the heart of a strategy based around large-scale vaccination centres in which the support of the military and municipalities has been vital,” she told the Financial Times.

“Charisma, professionalism and trustworthiness”

Gouveia e Melo, who was appointed to head the task force in January, has instilled confidence in a programme that began inauspiciously two months earlier amid allegations of queue-jumping, causing the previous leader, a hospital administrator, to resign. “The vice-admiral’s charisma, professionalism and trustworthiness have quickly turned him into one of the most popular and respected figures in the country,” said Miguel Prudêncio, a biochemist and researcher at Lisbon’s Institute of Molecular Medicine (IMM), one of several scientific bodies working to inform the public on coronavirus issues.

Gouveia e Melo brought with him a team of about 30 military strategists, mathematicians and doctors to work with health ministry officials on co-ordinating a network of about 300 vaccination centres, many based in municipal sports stadiums. Run by about 5,000 doctors, nurses and volunteers, the system administered about 154,000 jabs a day at its peak. Fear has also played its part. Portugal suffered one of the world’s worst surges in cases in January and February, just as the vaccination programme was getting underway. The country was among the first EU countries to be hit by the more infectious Delta coronavirus variant. “Striking images of ambulances lined up outside hospitals clearly made an impact,” said the IMM’s Prudêncio.

Henrique Gouveia e Melo visits Madeira tomorrow

The president of the Legislative Assembly of Madeira, José Manuel Rodrigues, receives Vice-Admiral Gouveia e Melo in audience, on Wednesday, October 13th, at 4 pm.

The meeting will take place at the Legislative Assembly of Madeira.

COVID-19 in Madeira: daily updates can be found in an earlier post

Travel latest: requirements for entering and leaving Madeira: is kept up-to-date on a previous post

9 thoughts on “Portugal is now Europe’s vaccination frontrunner”

  1. A very well-written article. The Admiral has featured prominently on mainland Portugal and done a very good job. There is talk of promotion in some quarters.

  2. Ireland has fully vaccinated 93.7% of all of our population aged over 12 years old since early September..so we have been, and are the forerunners in having the highest vaccinated population in not only Europe, but also the rest of the world.


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