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Portugal’s government is under fire over its plans to let people infected with COVID-19 cast their ballots at polling stations in an upcoming election, as officials struggle to square the right to vote with the duty to protect public health.

Eligible voters who are infected and confined at home – as many as 600,000 people on the day of the Jan. 30 election, officials estimate – are to be allowed to vote in person as an exceptional measure, the government announced Thursday.

However, it recommends that they vote only in a 6 p.m.-7 p.m. time slot, when polling stations are traditionally less busy, Justice and Interior Minister Francisca Van Dunem said after a Cabinet meeting.

She said that it is not operationally practical to establish separate corridors and booths in polling stations for infected people.

She said she trusted in the “historically exemplary behaviour” of the Portuguese to ensure voting goes safely and smoothly.

Portugal on Thursday officially reported more than 56,000 new daily cases of COVID-19 – a new record amid a recent surge blamed on the omicron variant.

Mask use is mandatory in indoor public areas, and the General Directorate for Health issued a recommendation that infected people should wear either surgical masks or FFP2 masks – but not cloth masks – in polling stations. Furthermore, they should get there either on foot or by car, avoiding public transport.

The National Association of Public Health Doctors expressed astonishment at the measures, saying they represented “a failure of planning” for the snap election, which was foreseen two months ago.

The government decision sets “an avoidable precedent,” by permitting infected people to leave confinement, and will make it harder for health authorities to persuade infected people to stay at home, the association said in a statement.

It said it would recommend that doctors refuse any medical liability related to the government’s measures.

Though the number of infected people has surged in Portugal, pressure on the public health system has remained manageable, authorities say. On Wednesday, there were just over 2,000 people in hospital and 152 in intensive care.

The health ministry says 89% of the population of 10.3 million is fully vaccinated, one of the highest rates in the world.

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