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COVID-19

Spain under increasing pressure to impose virus lockdown

With coronavirus infections rising, Spain's central government was under pressure Wednesday to follow the example of other European nations and impose a new national shutdown.

Spain under increasing pressure to impose virus lockdown
Photos: AFP

The country has the second-highest caseload in the European Union after France. It has recorded more than 1.2 million cases so far and 36,495 deaths, including 18,669 new infections and 238 new deaths reported by the health ministry on Tuesday.   

More worryingly, pressure on hospitals is increasing with nearly a third of all hospital intensive care unit beds, 29 percent, occupied by Covid-19 patients.

Austria, Britain, France, Germany and Ireland have all recently re-imposed shutdowns as the virus that first emerged in China at the end of 2019 shows no sign of abating.

But until now, Spain has resisted, with the government hoping a national night-time curfew and other restrictions put in place by its regional authorities who are responsible for managing the pandemic, would be enough to slow the rate of infection.

The regions of Galicia and Murcia on Wednesday ordered all bars and restaurants to close, a day after the northern Castilla y Leon region took the same step, while demanding tougher action from the government.   

Regional leader Alfonso Fernandez Manueco urged the government to “take responsibility” and “declare the measures which the situation requires” — namely a new lockdown.

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Waiting game

Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez declared a state of emergency on October 25th that has given Spain's powerful regional governments the legal tools to order a shutdown of businesses and impose nighttime curfews to fight the virus.   

But they cannot impose home confinement without permission from the central government, which has so far resisted the move.   

“We are going to try not to reach that point,” Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo told Canal Sur radio on Tuesday when asked about the possibility of a new lockdown.

The government was still waiting to see the results of “the measures taken until now” such as the nighttime curfew, she added.    

“Give us a bit of time,” Calvo said.    

Health Minister Salvador Illa has said the government was “neither working on nor expecting” to announce a stay-at-home order.    

“We think the wide range of measures available to regional authorities is enough,” he said on Monday after rejecting another request from the northern Asturias region for permission to impose home confinement.

In mid-March, when the pandemic first struck, Spain imposed one of the world's strictest lockdowns, which crippled its economy and left the general public traumatised.

'Drastic measures needed'

Fernando Garcia, an epidemiologist at the Carlos III Health Institute, said the risk level was “very high” and that Spain should follow the example of other European nations and impose a lockdown “for at least two weeks”.

“In this situation, more drastic measures are needed than those which we have now, which are very timid and clearly insufficient,” he told AFP.    

But Fernando Rodriguez Artalejo, a public health professor at the Autonomous University of Madrid, said it was unclear what the “added benefit” of home confinement would be, given that bars, restaurants and nightclubs are already closed or operating at reduced capacity across much of Spain.    

“Perhaps the most prudent course would be to wait and see what effect the measures which are being taken now are having, which are many and very restrictive,” he told AFP.

Infections began rising after lockdown measures were fully removed on June 21st, with the increase blamed on the rapid return of nightlife and the lack of an efficient track-and-trace system for infectious cases.

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

By AFP's Daniel Silva

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FACE MASKS

Spain announces end of public transport face mask rule

Spain's Health Minister has announced that in the coming days masks will no longer be mandatory on planes, buses, trains, taxis and other means of public transport.

Spain announces end of public transport face mask rule

Spanish Health Minister Carolina Darias on Thursday confirmed that face masks would no longer be compulsory on public transport, a measure which has been in place in Spain for almost three years. 

“I will raise the proposal of eliminating the mandatory use of masks on public transport”, she said, adding that next week she will convene with the Interterritorial Council of the National Health System to “put this measure into effect”.  

Darias did not specify exactly when this would happen, although government agreements are usually approved the following day in the Official State Gazette (BOE), so the official end to the mask rule looks set to be on February 8th.

The minister did clarify however that masks would still be mandatory in health settings such as health centres and hospitals “as health experts advise”. 

Last week, Darias reported the possibility of eliminating the mandatory mask rule in pharmacies, but this is currently being “weighed up” by health experts.  

Manuel Franco, an expert in Public Health and a member of the Spanish Society of Public Health and Sanitary Administration (Sespas) explained that “the World Health Organisation (WHO) is already considering the decision to lift the public health emergency warning for Covid-19” and adds that “if this goes ahead, it would make no sense to maintain the mask rule”.  

The use of masks ceased to be mandatory outdoors almost a year ago, on February 10th, 2022.

Then, two months later on April 20th, the government announced they wouldn’t be required indoors either, except in health centres and on public transport. 

The latest bulletin of Sentinel Surveillance of Acute Respiratory Infection in Primary Care (ARIs) and in Hospitals (SARI), announced a drop in infections and hospitalisations and said that the rates for Covid-19 remain stable.

The decision to end the mask rule in February comes after health experts who advise the Spanish Ministry of Health said that masks should no longer be required on public transport

On Wednesday, January 25th the director of the Health Alerts and Emergencies Coordination Centre of the Ministry of Health (CCAES), Fernando Simón, assured that the end of the mask rule on transport would be announced “shortly” either “next week or the following”.  

Then, on Thursday morning, government spokesperson, Isabel Rodríguez, stated that the decision to remove the mask on public transport would be taken “immediately, when possible”, but pointed out that the government was looking at the situation in China first. 

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