ATHENS (Reuters) – Greek public health sector workers protested in Athens over pay and conditions on Monday as hospitals struggled with a new surge in COVID-19 cases and authorities considered further restrictions.

The protesters said they were underpaid, overworked and understaffed. They called for more hirings, for the government to include them on a list of hazardous professions which receive hazard pay benefits, and for private doctors to be ordered to help.

A decision by the government to suspend unvaccinated health sector workers has increased staff shortages, they said. Greece made vaccinations mandatory for nursing home staff in July and for healthcare workers in September.

Hospitals, particularly in northern Greece, are scrambling to treat patients, as cases hit new record highs this month of more than 6,000 daily, and wards are running out of space.

“The stretchers at the hospitals on duty are increasing by the dozens, (and) patients are being chosen for intensive care units by priority, based on their ages,” said the president of the Public Hospital Workers Federation, Michalis Giannakos.

“Patients’ lives are in danger, and staff that have remained are like elastic bands stretched from clinic to clinic, from ward to ward.”

Last week authorities announced new measures which require the unvaccinated to provide negative tests to enter cafes and restaurants, state services and banks. Public and private sector employees also now need to take tests twice a week to enter their workplace.

The government is trying to avoid another lockdown, but with only about 60 percent of the population of 11 million vaccinated, it is considering further restrictions, including possibly more mandatory vaccinations and testing.

Only one in 10 now being treated in intensive care units for COVID-19 is fully vaccinated, government spokesman Giannis Oikonomou said on Monday.

Eleven private clinics have volunteered to provide space for COVID patients, he said, adding that the government had asked private doctors to offer their services and could order them to do so if necessary.

(Reporting By Deborah Kyvrikosaios, Vassilis Triandafyllou and Giorgos Moutafis; Editing by Gareth Jones)