By Victoria Waldersee
LISBON (Reuters) - Doctors volunteering to help Portugal's overstretched health service with a peak of COVID-19 hospitalisations say they are being turned away or encountering unnecessary bureaucracy.
Thousands of doctors, most retired but some in the private and public sector offering to work extra hours, have put their names forward to help state hospitals since March, but few have been contacted, Portugal's main doctors' association said.
"Nothing happened or a series of inexplicable administrative barriers were put forward, including the refusal of voluntary work," more than 100 of the medics involved said in a letter to the government on Monday seen by Reuters.
"It's pure incompetence," surgeon Gentil Martins, one of the doctors who offered his services and spearheaded the letter, told broadcaster TVI. "It's the patients who lose out."
The health ministry did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
The government has faced mounting criticism over its handling of the pandemic, including easing of restrictions over Christmas which caused a spike, refusing help from private hospitals last year, and reported vaccine queue-jumping.
With 770,502 cases and 14,557 deaths recorded, Portugal is struggling to treat nearly 7,000 COVID-19 patients in hospitals and intensive care.
Germany last week sent a team of military doctors to help..
A nationwide lockdown in place since mid-January has put a lid on soaring infections, with 2,583 new cases and 203 deaths reported on Tuesday, down from 16,432 and 303 ten days ago.
But Health Minister Marta Temido cautioned that it was "evident" the lockdown - in place until February 14 - must be extended, most likely until the end of March, to bring down patient numbers in hospitals to a manageable level.
Earlier on Tuesday, in a webinar on saving the crucial tourism industry, Economy Minister Pedro Siza echoed calls to extend restrictions, warning that the recent spiral in cases was "very negative" for Portugal's image.
(Reporting by Victoria Waldersee, additional reporting by Patricia Rua; Editing by Andrei Khalip and Andrew Cawthorne)