By Catarina Demony and Sergio Goncalves
LISBON (Reuters) - The more contagious variant of the coronavirus discovered in Britain is spreading rapidly across Portugal, pressuring the health service at a time when authorities are scrambling to tackle the country's worst outbreak since the pandemic's start.
Around 20% of new COVID-19 cases being reported are of the more transmissible variant, Health Minister Marta Temido told broadcaster RTP late on Wednesday, warning that number could reach 60% as early as next week.
Portugal's daily COVID-19 cases rose 40% on Wednesday from the day before to a record 14,647, with the national health system on the verge of collapse without enough intensive care beds or human resources to treat coronavirus patients.
"The health system cannot handle this level of infections," Temido said.
The European Union country of 10 million people, where authorities implemented a 15-day lockdown last week to fight the spread of the virus, also hit a record of 219 new deaths on Wednesday, up from 218 the day before.
"I feel that we are very close to the limit," Temido said. "Several hospitals in the Greater Lisbon (area) are in a complex situation ... the numbers we are facing are very powerful."
Ricardo Mexia, president of the National Association of Public Health Doctors, said there were various reasons why the number of cases and deaths were increasing, including the government's decision to ease measures over the Christmas period and current cold weather.
According to Temido, the new variant is playing a role too.
Under the new lockdown imposed on Friday, all non-essential services are shut and people were urged to stay home. But the government decided to keep schools open despite heavy criticism.
Temido said ministers discussed the potential closure of schools on Wednesday evening, but said a final decision would only be announced after a government meeting on Thursday.
(Reporting by Catarina Demony and Sergio Goncalves; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell)