By Victoria Waldersee and Miguel Pereira
LISBON (Reuters) - Ambulances under police escort rushed three intensive-care patients from overstretched Lisbon hospitals to a military base on Friday to be airlifted to the island of Madeira.
As the number of patients in Portugal's intensive care units hit record levels, the regional government in Madeira said it had 157 beds to spare and could take people in even though it is also experiencing a spike in COVID-19 cases.
Portugal's hospital system is creaking under the pressure of the world's worst surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths per capita, blamed on a relaxation of rules around Christmas and the rapid spread of the coronavirus variant first detected in Britain.
The Health Ministry reported 13,200 infections and 278 deaths on Friday, down from Thursday's record levels. But it registered a new peak of 806 people in intensive care - leaving 44 beds vacant in the mainland's public health system.
At Lisbon's largest hospital, Santa Maria, dozens of ambulances have queued for hours over the past few days. On Friday, non-urgent patients were sent to nearby health centres.
"We don't know if the patients in ambulances have light symptoms, or severe ones. It's out of control," said Anabela Oliveira, head of emergency services at Santa Maria.
The government has extended a nationwide lockdown until mid-February, banned non-essential travel for its nationals and imposed checks on the border with Spain.
Lisbon's streets were largely empty on Friday morning, with all except essential workers confined to their homes.
"We've been at this for a year, something should have been done sooner," said Marco, a 43-year-old fitness trainer whose studio has been shut since the lockdown began.
"It was obvious they had to do it. But I'm frustrated. There's just nothing to do," he said as he walked his dog.
Few believe the restrictions will be lifted soon.
"If in March things are good, that's great, but I don't believe it," said Maria Rita Coutinho, 69. "For as long as people don't comprehend that they've got to respect the situation, we're not going anywhere."
(Reporting by Victoria Waldersee, Miguel Pereira, additional reporting by Patricia Rua, Catarina Demony, editing by Andrei Khalip and Giles Elgood)