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LIFE IN SPAIN

UPDATE: When will facemasks no longer be compulsory in Spain?

Spain has been one of the most pro-mask countries in Europe since the start of the pandemic, but Spanish health authorities are now suggesting estimated dates for when it should no longer be mandatory to wear one.

UPDATE: When will facemasks no longer be compulsory in Spain?
Dancers wearing face masks attend a ballet class at the Corella Dance Academy in Barcelona on December 2, 2020. (Photo by Pau BARRENA / AFP)

Spain has been one of the most pro-mask countries in Europe since the start of the pandemic, but the Spanish government and its research institutes are now weighing up when it should no longer be mandatory to wear one.

If you live in Spain, grabbing a mask before heading out is probably second nature by now. 

Wearing a face mask in public has been mandatory since May 2020, with a few exceptions such as while eating or drinking at a bar or restaurant, or when doing sports outdoors in some places. 

Buying mascarillas has become part of our weekly shop, they’ve been turned into fashion accessories and people caught not wearing one face fines ranging from €100 to €30,000 for serious cases.

For international tourists, the prospect of having to wear a mask while strolling along the beach or hiking in nature in Spain is also something that’s been met by plenty of criticism, even though the Spanish government slightly eased the measures so that at least mask-free sunbathing is allowed.

But after 11 months of sweaty mouths, steamed up glasses and impossible lip reading, some of you may be wondering when the use of facemasks won’t be mandatory anymore and we’ll all be able to breathe fresh air again.

When will mask usage no longer be mandatory in Spain? 

“We will be able to not wear facemasks in public when 50 to 70 percent of the population is vaccinated, so it will depend on the rate of vaccination,” Rafael Ortí, head of the Spanish Society of Preventive Medicine, Public Health and Hygiene (Sempsph), told medical publication Redacción Médica. 

“I would like to believe that this will be possible by the summer, in August.” 

Spanish PM Pedro Sanchez removes his mask to deliver a speech. Photos: Javier Soriano/AFP

Other Sempsph members such as Julián Domínguez, head of the Preventive Medicine Service of the University Hospital of Ceuta, believes the wait to achieve 50 to 70 percent immunity in Spain will be longer.

“This could happen at the end of the year at the earliest,” Domínguez estimated.

“If the infection rate begins to decrease significantly, then not wearing a facemask should be considered in open public spaces ”, Domínguez has argued.

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As of April 26th, 8.14 percent of Spain’s population has received the full two-dose inoculation against Covid-19, as part of a vaccine campaign that began on December 27th 2020.

Up until now the Spanish government had only said on its Q&A page that masks would not be mandatory “when a considerable proportion of our population has been vaccinated,” without providing an estimated date. 

The likely end of Spain’s state of alarm on May 9th will mean the end of the curfew, border closures and other restrictions in most regions, but the lifting of facemask rules isn’t being considered for that date.

“We’ll have much better weather in the summer, with which the probability of being infected is ten times lower,” virologist Margarita del Val, head of Spain’s National Research Council.

told online daily 20 minutos in March about the potential easing of mask restrictions by  August. 

“In addition, our vaccination campaign will be much more advanced and there’ll be more information on how vaccines work, with which we will see things differently,” Del Val wanted to point out.

Although there’s no exact date yet for when there will be changes to facemask laws, once over-40s and professionals who are at risk of being infected have been vaccinated, an easing is expected, de Val said.

Photo: Gabriel Bouys/AFP

Looking overseas for answers

Spanish health authorities are now looking closely at Gibraltar and Israel, two of the places with the most advanced vaccine campaigns in the world, as examples of what happens when face masks are no longer obligatory. 

“The universal and massive vaccination that has been carried out in Israel has allowed these new measures to be implemented. This is the reason why they can begin to return to a normal life”, Domínguez stated.

Spanish authorities are unlikely to carry out a blanket lifting of mask usage in all places and situations once the 70 percent vaccine target is met, nor allow those who have received the Covid-19 vaccine to be exempt from wearing masks as they can still be carriers.

A drop in infections due to a more advanced vaccine rollout, people respecting current and future restrictions and self-isolation measures for those infected are all factors that can all play a part in how fast mask usage is phased out.

“There are still quite a few months left,” Del Val concluded, adding that clearing the air in poorly ventilated indoor spaces “is not something we’re doing well”.

Could it be that not wearing a mask outdoors will be allowed first but we’ll have to keep wearing it indoors in shops and bars? 

Perhaps, but what matters to Spanish epidemiologists is that the 70 percent immunisation target is met first, which according to government estimates will fall in the summer. 

“Social distancing measures, hand hygiene and the use of facemasks could be scrapped at a generalized level if this happens,” Spanish Epidemiology Society (SEE) told medical journal Redacción Médica. 

“Although it is possible that according to the information available at that time, the Spanish government continues to recommend such measures in very vulnerable groups.

“If the transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus could not be controlled and its transmission was maintained at significantly high levels, these measures would have to be maintained ”.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about Spain’s restrictions on cloth face masks

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MONEY

Rampant branch closures and job cuts help Spain’s banks post huge earnings

Spain’s biggest banks this week reported huge profits in 2021 and cheered their return to recovery post-Covid, but ruthless cost-cutting in the form of thousands of layoffs, hundreds of branch closures and the removal of many ATMs have left customers in Spain suffering, in this latest example of ‘Capitalismo 2.0’. 

A man withdraws cash from a Santander branch in Madrid.
More than 3,500 Santander workers lost their jobs in Spain in 2021 and a further 2,000 more employees working for Santander across Europe were also laid off. Photo: PHILIPPE DESMAZES / AFP

Spanish banking giant Santander on Wednesday said it has bounced back from the pandemic as it returned to profit last year, beating analyst expectations and exceeding its pre-COVID earnings.

Likewise, Spain’s second-largest bank BBVA said on Thursday that it saw a strong rebound in 2021 following the Covid crisis, tripling its net profits thanks to a recovery in business activity.

It’s a similar story for Unicaja (€137 million profit in 2021), Caixabank (€5.2 billion profit thanks to merge with Bankia), Sabadell (€530 million profit last year), Abanca (€323 million profit) and all of Spain’s other main banks.

This may be promising news for Spain’s banking sector, but their profits have come at a cost for many of their employees and customers. 

In 2021, 19,000 bank employees lost their jobs, almost all through state-approved ERE layoffs, meant for companies struggling financially.

BBVA employees protest against layoffs in May 2021 in Madrid. Spain’s second-largest bank BBVA is looking to shed 3,800 jobs, affecting 16 percent of its staff, in a move denounced by unions as “scandalous”. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)

Around 11 percent of bank branches in Spain have also been closed down in 2021 as part of Spanish banks’ attempts to cut costs, even though they’ve agreed to pay just under €5 billion in compensation.

Rampant branch closures have in turn resulted in 2,200 ATMs being removed since the Covid-19 pandemic began, even though the use of cajeros automáticos went up by 20 percent in 2021.

There are now 48,300 ATMs in Spain, levels not seen since 2001.

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Apart from losses caused by the coronavirus crisis, Spain’s financial institutions have justified the lay-offs, branch closures and ATM removals under the premise that there was already a shift to online banking taking place among customers. 

But the problem has been around for longer in a country with stark population differences between the cities and so-called ‘Empty Spain’, with rural communities and elderly people bearing the brunt of it. 

 

Caixabank laid off almost 6,500 workers in the first sixth months of 2021. Photo: ANDER GILLENEA/AFP

Just this month, a 78-year-old Valencian man has than collected 400,000+ signatures in an online petition calling for Spanish banks to offer face-to-face customer service that’s “humane” to elderly people, spurring the Bank of Spain and even Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez to publicly say they would address the problem.

READ MORE: ‘I’m old, not stupid’ – How one Spanish senior is demanding face-to-face bank service

It’s worth noting that between 2008 and 2019, Spain had the highest number of branch closures and bank job cuts in Europe, with 48 percent of its branches shuttered compared with a bloc-wide average of 31 percent.

Below is more detailed information on how Santander and BBVA, Spain’s two biggest banks, have reported their huge profits in 2021.

Santander

Driven by a strong performance in the United States and Britain, the bank booked a net profit of €8.1 billion in 2021, close to a 12-year high. 

It was a huge improvement from 2020 when the pandemic hit and the bank suffered a net loss of €8.7 billion after it was forced to write down the value of several of its branches, particularly in the UK. It was also higher than 2019, when the bank posted a net profit of €6.5 billion.

Analysts from FactSet were expecting profits of €7.9 billion. 

“Our 2021 results demonstrate once again the value of our scale and presence across both developed and developing markets, with attributable profit 25 per cent higher than pre-COVID levels in 2019,” said chief executive Ana Botin in a statement.

Net banking income, the equivalent to turnover, also increased, reaching €33.4 billion, compared to €31.9 billion in 2020. This dynamic was made possible by a strong increase in customer numbers, with the group now counting almost 153 million customers worldwide. 

“We have added five million new customers in the last 12 months alone,” said Botin.

Santander performed particularly well in Europe and North America, with profits doubling in constant euros compared to 2020. In the UK, where Santander has a strong presence, current profit even “quadrupled” over the same period to €1.6 billion.

Last year’s net loss was the first in Banco Santander’s history, after having to revise downwards the value of several of its subsidiaries, notably in the UK, because of COVID.

The banking giant, which cut nearly 3,500 jobs at the end of 2020, in September announced an interim shareholder payout of €1.7 billion for its 2021 results. “In the coming weeks, we will announce additional compensation linked to the 2021 results,” it said.

BBVA

The group, which mainly operates in Spain but also in Latin America, Mexico and Turkey, posted profits of €4.65 billion ($5.25 billion), up from €1.3 billion a year earlier.

The result, which followed a solid fourth quarter with profits of €1.34 billion, was higher than expected, with FactSet analysts expecting a figure of €4.32 billion .

Excluding non-recurring items, such as the outcome of a restructuring plan launched last year, it generated profits of 5.07 billion euros in what was the highest figure “in 10 years”, the bank said in a statement.

In 2020, the Spanish bank saw its net profit tumble 63 percent as a result of asset depreciation and provisions taken against an increase in bad loans due to the economic fallout of the virus crisis.

“The economic recovery over the past year has brought with it a marked upturn in banking activity, mainly in the loan portfolio,” the bank explained, pointing to a reduction of the provisions put in place because of Covid.

In 2021, BBVA added a “record” 8.7 million new customers, largely due to the growth of its online activities. It now has 81.7 million customers worldwide.

The group’s net interest margins also rose 6.1 percent year-on-year to €14.7 billion, said the bank, which is undergoing a cost-cutting drive.

So far, it has axed 2,935 jobs and closed down 480 branches as the banking sector undergoes increasing digitalisation and fewer and fewer transactions are carried out over the counter.

At the end of 2020, BBVA sold its US unit to PNC Financial Services for nearly 10 billion euros and decided to reinvest some of the funds in the Turkish market.

In November, it launched a bid to take full control of its Turkish lending subsidiary Garanti, offering €2.25 billion ($2.6 billion) to buy the 50.15 percent stake it does not yet own.

The deal should be finalised in the first quarter of 2022.

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