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EXPLAINED: What we know about Spain’s lockdown exit strategy

The government in Spain looks poised to extend lockdown beyond the current deadline of April 25th, possibly until May 10th. But is there a plan for lifting restrictions?

EXPLAINED: What we know about Spain’s lockdown exit strategy
Heathcare workers wearing face masks and protective suits acknowledge applause outside the Hospital de Barcelona. Photo: AFP

Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez will appear before Spain’s parliament on Wednesday April 22nd to present his arguments for extending the lockdown another fortnight.

Where are we now with lockdown?

Monday saw Spain lift the total ‘economy hibernation’ measures that had been imposed on March 30th and allow workers in in certain key sectors – such as construction and manufacturing – to return to work, as long as social distancing measures could be applied.

But people in Spain are still confined in what is one of the strictest lockdowns in Europe. Residents are confined to their home except for specific reasons that include shopping for essentials, visiting the pharmacy or seeking medical treatment.

But apart from dog owners who are permitted to take their pets on short walks outside, people in Spain are not even allowed to go outside in public places to take any exercise.

Could people be allowed to take a walk outside?

A committee headed by Theresa Ribera,  minister for environmental transition and one of Spain’s deputy prime ministers, has pulled together experts head of different government divisions and representatives from each of Spain’s 17 regions to explore various scenarios for lifting lockdown when the time comes.

But beyond a few key ministers, the identity of those involved in the task force has not been revealed nor have the specific scenarios under consideration.

Spanish media are widely reporting, including El Pais, a newspaper close to the socialist government, that authorities are considering loosening lockdown measures somewhat and may allow people to leave the house for exercise and to take children outside for short periods of time before the lockdown is lifted completely.

Region by region?

One of the issues being brought to the table however is whether lockdown restrictions can be lifted at different times in different places, depending on how affected and to what extent the outbreak is under control in each region.

For instance, the Canary Islands seems to have the outbreak under control and the archipelago could maintain strict controls on entry but allow more freedom of movement around each island, some of which are close to being entirely free of coronavirus cases.

But the lifting of restrictions per region has so far been ruled out before the next lockdown deadline (of April 25) by Interior Minister, Fernando Grande-Marlaska.

The data in the following tweet shows the huge disparity between regions when it comes to coronavirus cases and deaths. The final column shows the number of deaths per 100,000 people by region.

Gradual Normalization

One thing being discussed is a period of what has been dubbed ‘gradual normalization’ – or ‘normalización atenuada’ in Spanish- which involves staggering the relaxation of restrictions into two stages.

The first phase, according to Spanish media reports, which could last from the start of June until the end of July would see restrictions on travel within Spain itself and close monitoring of citizens.

It wouldn’t be until the second stage which would continue to the end of the year, that bars, restaurants and hotels could expect to open, according to a report in Spanish newspaper, 20 Minutos. 

Too early could provoke second wave of infections

Experts fear that governments will bow to economic and social pressure to lift their lockdowns prematurely, and warn that such a move could allow COVID-19 to return.

“Lifting the restrictions too quickly could lead to a deadly resurgence,” warned World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus last week.

It is widely agreed three conditions must be met before it is even sensible to consider loosening lockdown restrictions. 

First, there would need to be an established decline in the number of COVID-19 cases in intensive care. This would give exhausted health workers a badly needed respite and allow hospitals to restock equipment and supplies.

The transmission rate of COVID-19 — the number of people an infected individual infects in turn — would need to have dropped below one, compared to 3.3 people at the start of the outbreak.

And finally there would need to be a sufficient number of masks to protect the populace and tests to closely monitor the virus's spread. 

Although Spain seems to have seen the peak in the coronavirus outbreak which is thought to have come on April 2nd, the country is still far from meeting the three prerequisites and still isn't close to having the capability for widespread testing and monitoring. 

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FACE MASKS

Face masks to remain mandatory on public transport in Spain until March 2023

The Spanish government's health experts have agreed not to review face mask usage on public transport until March 2023, a new report has found, by which stage almost a whole year will have passed since other face mask rules were lifted.

Face masks to remain mandatory on public transport in Spain until March 2023

Although masks haven’t been mandatory in indoor public settings (except hospitals, pharmacies, care homes and other health-related centres) since April 20th 2022, face coverings must still be worn on public transport in Spain, such as on buses, planes, taxis, metro carriages and trains.

According to a report published in Spanish news site Voz Populi, Spain’s Emergency Unit has agreed not to review Spain’s face mask rules until March 2023, even though all other Covid-19 domestic and travel restrictions were lifted before the summer of 2022.

The article, which cites internal sources from Spain’s government, adds that the country’s Public Health Commission (a body which advises Spain’s Health Ministry on which measures to introduce) has reportedly agreed to shelve any possible changes until March, and as things stand keep the rule in place “for an indefinite time” as “it is not the right time to remove masks due to the arrival of winter”.

The Health Ministry, however, argues that no fixed date for reviewing face mask legislation has been set.

“We’re taking the German approach,” the Emergency Unit source told Voz Populi about the fact that Germany is the only other country in Europe with similar mask-wearing rules to Spain.

On October 1st, new measures were brought into force in Germany stating that passengers over the age of 14 must wear FFP2 masks on long-distance trains rather than surgical ones, with the German government saying it will not review the legislation until April 2023.

Fernando Simón, Spain’s Health Emergencies chief, told journalists recently that “it’s okay to wait a little bit to see how the disease evolves” before making a decision regarding the complete removal of face masks.

However, if Spanish health experts are indeed looking to follow in the footsteps of Germany, there is even a possibility that the return of face masks to all indoor public settings this winter could happen, or at least a debate about it. 

An increase in Covid and flu cases that’s overburdened hospitals this autumn, as well as the emergence of the new Omicron subvariant BQ.1, has resulted in German authorities considering whether they should bring back old Covid-19 restrictions for the winter months.

Spain is also starting to see an increase in Covid and flu infections, and talk of an eighth coronavirus wave is rumbling in the background, but there has been no mention yet by Health Ministry representatives of a possible return to indoor face mask wearing across the board.

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