Trinidad and Tobago said on Monday it was tightening lockdown restrictions for three weeks starting at midnight as the number of new COVID-19 cases hits record highs and the Caribbean twin-island nation faces a potential shortage of hospital beds.

Prime Minister Keith Rowley said that under the new restrictions, only businesses deemed essential services such as supermarkets, pharmacies and financial services would remain open, for reduced hours, in addition to the key energy and manufacturing sectors.

The government shut down shopping malls, cinemas, theaters, restaurants, bars, places of worship, beauty salons and fitness centers last week in a bid to prevent the spread of the virus.

Other non-essential retail and food businesses such as street-food vendors will close from midnight.

“Our healthcare system is now in danger of (being) overrun because of the rate of infection we are experiencing, Rowley said on Monday.

The country of more than 1.3 million people managed to curb COVID-19 infections during much of last year.

Its total tally of 11 313 cases and 174 deaths since the start of the pandemic is still less than half the global average per capita.

Yet contagion has surged lately, with Trinidad and Tobago currently registering 2 506 active COVID-19 cases.

Health officials warn the healthcare system could be overwhelmed in 10 days if the trend continues.

One particular factor for concern is the arrival of the highly transmissible Brazilian P1 variant, first identified in a Venezuelan migrant.

Only 42 455 people in Trinidad and Tobago have been vaccinated to date as small Caribbean island nations complain of inequitable global access to vaccines for countries without the financial or political heft to seal deals.