SHARE
COPY LINK

MADRID

Spain mulls ‘drastic measures’ as coronavirus cases top one million

Spain has become the first European Union nation to record a million coronavirus infections, official data showed on Wednesday, as the government mulled fresh restrictions on public life to curb the spread of the disease.

Spain mulls 'drastic measures' as coronavirus cases top one million
Photo: AFP

The country recorded 16,973 confirmed cases of Covid-19 over the past 24 hours, the health ministry announced, taking the total to 1,005,295 since its first case was diagnosed on January 31 on the remote island of La Gomera in the Canary Islands.

Of this number, 34,366 people have died, with 156 more deaths were recorded in the previous 24 hours.   

Spain, which is home to around 47 million people, is only the sixth country in the world to cross this grim milestone after the United States, India, Brazil, Russia and Argentina, according to an AFP tally based on official figures.

The new wave of contagion has been less deadly than in late March and April, when fatalities routinely exceeded 800 per day, as the median age of new infections has dropped.   

But with healthcare workers warning the spike could once again overwhelm hospitals, health minister Salvador Illa said on Tuesday the government was  considering several new measures, including nighttime curfews such as those recently put in place in France and Belgium.   

“We are facing very tough weeks ahead, winter is coming, the second wave is no longer a threat, it is a reality across Europe,” he told a news conference, adding the government was “open to everything” to contain the virus.

'Political weapon'

The health ministry is set to meet on Thursday with representatives from Spain's powerful regional governments, who are in charge of healthcare, to update the country's plan to respond to the pandemic.

“The second wave is a reality. In many areas of our country, the epidemic is out of control,” Illa told Onda Cero radio on Thursday ahead of the meeting. “I insist we have to take drastic measures, as do several regions,” he said. 

READ MORE: 

Spain was one of the worst-affected countries when the coronavirus struck Europe early this year before one of the world's most stringent lockdowns helped reduce the outbreak's spread.

But infections have surged since the lockdown measures were fully removed at the end of June, with the rise blamed on the rapid return of nightlife and a lack of an efficient system to track and trace infections.

Messy disagreements between the central and regional governments, and between political parties, over what measures to take have also hampered the response, experts say.

“The pandemic has been used as a political weapon to fight and argue with your adversaries instead of trying to find a middle ground and the best solution for everyone,” Salvador Macip, an expert in health sciences at Catalonia's Open University who has written a book called “The Great Modern Plagues”, told AFP.

'Tired and angry'

As infections have picked up, Spanish regional authorities started imposing fresh restrictions.

Madrid and several satellite cities have since early October been under a partial lockdown, while the wealthy northeastern region of Catalonia has imposed a 15-day shutdown of all bars and restaurants.   

The northern wine-growing region of La Rioja announced Wednesday it would close its regional borders while the northeastern region of Aragon said it would impose a partial lockdown on its three biggest cities — Huesca, Teruel and Zaragoza.   

Angela Hernandez Puente, a doctor and the deputy secretary of Madrid's Amtys medical association, said the situation was very worrying, but not comparable with the overwhelming pressure the health system came under in March when intensive care units were full and staff lacked personal protective equipment.

But she said the gains of Spain's tough lockdown were wasted due to a lack of preparation for a second wave of infections, citing as an example the failure to hire more doctors for public primary care centres, the first line of defence against the virus as they handle testing and tracing potential cases as well as treating the sick.

“Health care staff are tired and angry, many doctors feel that more should have been done in June, July and August to not let the public health system become overburdened as it is now,” she told AFP.

By AFP's Daniel Silva

READ MORE: 

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.

COVID-19 ALERT

Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

A resurgence of Covid-19 cases in Europe, this time driven by new, fast-spreading Omicron subvariants, is once again threatening to disrupt people's summer plans.

Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

Several Western European nations have recently recorded their highest daily case numbers in months, due in part to Omicron sub-variants BA.4 and BA.5.

The increase in cases has spurred calls for increased vigilance across a continent that has relaxed most if not all coronavirus restrictions.

The first resurgence came in May in Portugal, where BA.5 propelled a wave that hit almost 30,000 cases a day at the beginning of June. That wave has since started to subside, however.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: German Health Ministry lays out autumn Covid plan

Italy recorded more than 62,700 cases on Tuesday, nearly doubling the number from the previous week, the health ministry said. 

Germany meanwhile reported more than 122,000 cases on Tuesday. 

France recorded over 95,000 cases on Tuesday, its highest daily number since late April, representing a 45-percent increase in just a week.

Austria this Wednesday recorded more than 10,000 for the first time since April.

READ ALSO: Italy’s transport mask rule extended to September as Covid rate rises

Cases have also surged in Britain, where there has been a seven-fold increase in Omicron reinfection, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The ONS blamed the rise on the BA.4 and BA.5 variants, but also said Covid fell to the sixth most common cause of death in May, accounting for 3.3 percent of all deaths in England and Wales.

BA.5 ‘taking over’

Mircea Sofonea, an epidemiologist at the University of Montpellier, said Covid’s European summer wave could be explained by two factors.

READ ALSO: 11,000 new cases: Will Austria reintroduce restrictions as infection numbers rise?

One is declining immunity, because “the protection conferred by an infection or a vaccine dose decreases in time,” he told AFP.

The other came down to the new subvariants BA.4 and particularly BA.5, which are spreading more quickly because they appear to be both more contagious and better able to escape immunity.

Olivier Schwartz, head of the virus and immunity unit at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, said BA.5 was “taking over” because it is 10 percent more contagious than BA.2.

“We are faced with a continuous evolution of the virus, which encounters people who already have antibodies — because they have been previously infected or vaccinated — and then must find a selective advantage to be able to sneak in,” he said.

READ ALSO: Tourists: What to do if you test positive for Covid in France

But are the new subvariants more severe?

“Based on limited data, there is no evidence of BA.4 and BA.5 being associated with increased infection severity compared to the circulating variants BA.1 and BA.2,” the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said last week.

But rising cases can result in increasing hospitalisations and deaths, the ECDC warned.

Could masks be making a comeback over summer? (Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)

Alain Fischer, who coordinates France’s pandemic vaccine strategy, warned that the country’s hospitalisations had begun to rise, which would likely lead to more intensive care admissions and eventually more deaths.

However, in Germany, virologist Klaus Stohr told the ZDF channel that “nothing dramatic will happen in the intensive care units in hospitals”.

Return of the mask? 

The ECDC called on European countries to “remain vigilant” by maintaining testing and surveillance systems.

“It is expected that additional booster doses will be needed for those groups most at risk of severe disease, in anticipation of future waves,” it added.

Faced with rising cases, last week Italy’s government chose to extend a requirement to wear medical grade FFP2 masks on public transport until September 30.

“I want to continue to recommend protecting yourself by getting a second booster shot,” said Italy’s Health Minister Roberto Speranza, who recently tested positive for Covid.

READ ALSO: Spain to offer fourth Covid-19 vaccine dose to ‘entire population’

Fischer said France had “clearly insufficient vaccination rates” and that a second booster shot was needed.

Germany’s government is waiting on expert advice on June 30 to decide whether to reimpose mandatory mask-wearing rules indoors.

The chairman of the World Medical Association, German doctor Frank Ulrich Montgomery, has recommended a “toolbox” against the Covid wave that includes mask-wearing, vaccination and limiting the number of contacts.

SHOW COMMENTS