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Antonio Costa: Portugal's prime minister cools tensions after calling doctors 'cowards'

Portugal’s Antonio Costa has sought to calm tensions with the country’s doctors after sparking anger with controversial comments.

The prime minister had been widely criticised for describing doctors sent to a struggling old people’s home as “cowards”.

The comments were made in an “off the record” interview with the weekly newspaper, Expresso on Saturday.

Seven-second video clips of the conversation were widely circulated and condemned on social media.

But tensions were cooled on Tuesday following an emergency meeting between the prime minister and the Portuguese Medical Association.

“The Prime Minister has clearly conveyed the respect and trust he has in Portuguese doctors,” said Miguel Guimaraes, president of the Portuguese Medical Association.

“I hope that all misunderstandings have been cleared up,” added Costa.

What caused the controversy?

In the conversation with Expresso, Antonio Costa was asked about the poor state of an old people’s home in Reguengos de Monsaraz, where 18 people have recently died from COVID-19.

Acknowledging shortcomings, the Prime Minister stressed that the government had “immediately reacted” to help patients when it was alerted that employees of the private home, themselves contaminated, were no longer able to do so.

“The president of the Regional Health Authority (ARS) has sent the doctors to do what they should do. And the guys, cowards, did nothing,” Costa can be heard saying.

The Order of Physicians in Portugal had also published a report on the situation in Reguengos de Monsaraz, which implicated the health authorities.

But the Portuguese Medical Association had earlier dismissed these accusations of responsibility in a statement on Monday.

“Private or public, these statements reflect a state of mind that offends doctors.”

“Despite ignoble pressures and threats, the doctors did not give up their work of caring for the sick or their duty to report serious shortcomings on the ground”.

“Offensive statements to all doctors and to patients who need us, especially the most vulnerable, are a poor service to the country’s rulers, and do nothing to help the necessary union at a time of pandemic”.

Since the start of the pandemic, Portugal has recorded 1,805 deaths and 55,912 officially declared cases of COVID-19 for a population of around 10 million inhabitants.

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