By Catarina Demony

LISBON (Reuters) – Portugal’s Prime Minister Antonio Costa said it was too soon to lift a lockdown to slow the novel coronavirus, even though the number of cases in the country is more than 10 times lower than in neighbouring Spain.

“Prudence above all,” Costa told a news conference on Thursday. “The spread of the pandemic is slowing but we have not reached the day that we can lift measures restricting movement. We can only do it when the trasmission risk is under control.”

He said schools will remain closed for the rest of the academic year, with classes to continue remotely.

Portugal has 13,956 confirmed coronavirus cases and 409 fatalities, while in Spain more than 150,000 people have been diagnosed and 15,000 people have died.

The massive gap in the number of cases and mortality rate between the neighbours sharing a 1,200-km border is hard to explain. Some experts and doctors have pointed to the fact that Portugal restricted movement of people early on, when cases were still in their hundreds and with just two deaths.

“The admission rate of suspected and confirmed patients to our hospital has reduced compared to the first weeks,” Fabio Costa Madeiros, a doctor at one of Lisbon’s biggest hospitals, told Reuters. “Undoubtedly, the confinement measures have contributed to control the spread of new cases and of admissions.”

There are only 241 infected in intensive care across the country, according to data by health authority DGS.

Portugal only had around 642 confirmed cases and two deaths from coronavirus when a 15-day nationwide state of emergency was declared on March 18, shutting down all non-essential services.

Even before that, the government closed all schools and nightclubs, banned gatherings of large groups, suspended flights to Italy and halted tourism with hard-hit Spain.

On the other side of the border, Spain reported the first death on March 3 but only imposed the lockdown 11 days later. It took France even longer. The first death was reported on Feb. 15 but a lockdown to slow the spread of the disease was only imposed on March 17.

“Portugal was very quick to implement measures. Others took longer. We had time to observe what other countries were going through,” Ines Fronteira, a public health expert at Lisbon’s Nova University, said.

But she also said it was too early to ease restrictions, which the public has very largely respected.

“I think we need to wait a bit longer for the curve to stabilise,” she said. “We have to be smart.”

(Reporting by Catarina Demony, additional reporting by Miguel Pereira; editing by Andrei Khalip and Barbara Lewis)