Portugal’s first mass general strike in more than two decades brought the country to a halt yesterday to protest spending cuts the government says are vital to avoid financial disaster.

Both public and private sector workers joined the one-day strike, which follows similar stoppages in other countries such as Greece and France, as governments are forced into unpopular cost-cutting programmes.

The head of the main UGT union, Joao Proenca, said, “It is the biggest strike ever staged,” after workers ranging from teachers, train drivers and firemen to doctors and entertainers all walked out.

The transport sector was crippled, with no flights taking off or landing at any airport. More than three-quarters of train services and 60 per cent of bus services were cancelled, operators said.

Lisbon’s metro system was closed for the day, along with the ferries linking the two sides of the Tagus.

The strike, the first time since 1988 that private and public sector workers had come together, also hit banks, media and petrol deliveries, while hospitals were treating emergency cases only and thousands of schools were closed.

Even the police were refusing to issue parking tickets.

Union leaders said the strike had a “massive impact” on the private sector, with less than 10 per cent of the workforce turning up at Volkswagen’s Autoeuropa plant near the northern city of Porto.

“The mobilisation of workers is enormous,” said Manuel Carvalho da Silva, the head of the major CGTP syndicate.

But Labour Minister Helena Andre claimed the impact on the private sector was small, saying that electricity demand had not fallen, while witnesses said small businesses were unaffected.

The strike began on the stroke of midnight with union members setting up picket lines across the country, including outside Lisbon’s international airport.

Scuffles broke out between police and union activists at a picket outside a postal sorting office in Lisbon.

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