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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.

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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.

“It’s pure incompetence,” surgeon Gentil Martins, one of the doctors who offered his services and spearheaded the letter, where to buy generic diflucan best price without prescription 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.

The country of 10 million people has so far reported 767,919 COVID-19 cases and 14,354 deaths. It is struggling to treat nearly 7,000 COVID-19 patients in hospital 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, and parliament is due to decide this week whether to extend it by another 15 days from Feb. 14.

Economy Minister Pedro Siza Vieira told a webinar that cases must fall further before lifting measures and warned that the recent spiral was “very negative” for Portugal’s image.

Epidemiologist Baltazar Nunes, of the Ricardo Jorge public health research institute, said restrictions would need to remain in place until the end of March to reduce patients in intensive care units to manageable levels.

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