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ANALYSIS: Does Spain’s disorganised easing of restrictions make the pandemic even more unpredictable?

Spain’s uneven lifting of restrictions as well as the lack of caution and clarity by government could be contributing to potential “superspreader” events such as last week’s street parties, Barcelona-based Graham Keeley finds out.

ANALYSIS: Does Spain's disorganised easing of restrictions make the pandemic even more unpredictable?
Photo: Josep Lago/AFP

There was an almost palpable sense of relief on the part of the owners when we walked through the doors of the restaurant.

After months of being closed, they were finally back in business at night – when most eateries actually make money.

A friend who has been in the business for years told me that the menú del día at lunch time are a Spanish tradition but restaurants usually make a loss on serving these up.

So, as we settled into our seats for our first meal out for months, we were treated to cava and the chat was friendly.

Perhaps it is always like this but as we were surrounded by empty tables, I had the impression the owners of the restaurant were very glad to have people back.

A pleasure we took for granted now seems very precious to us – eating or drinking out.

Kate Preston, who runs a series of restaurants with her husband in Barcelona, told me things were slowly getting back to some kind of normal.

“The restaurants and bars are filling up slowly, with people mostly on terraces, eating and drinking. There are lots of French tourists,” she said.

“For us it is just great to be open again after being closed for so long.”

This will be the first full weekend across Spain without a curfew or many of the restrictions after the end of the six-month state of emergency.

Authorities have warned people against repeating the scenes from last Saturday when revellers, some without masks, were photographed partying in Madrid, on the beaches of Barcelona and elsewhere.

Christened ‘freedom fiestas’ by the media, most health experts looked on with concern.

READ MORE: 

Rafael Bengoa, a former World Health Organisation health systems director who is now the co-director of the Institute for Health and Strategy in Bilbao, said young people interpreted the end of the state of emergency as the end of the pandemic.

“Young people interpreted it as the pandemic was finished; it is party time. Saturday night probably became a superspreader event,” he said.

“The health system will feel it in a few days. What we should learn from now on should be not to announce news about unlocking every week e.g. this week you will be able to take off masks, next week you can hug, next week you can go to the pub.”

Professor Bengoa added: “With the high incidence figures we have in Spain, all those announcements will become an excuse for party time and the virus will spread. It is better to have an organised (relaxation) of lockdown than a disorganised one.”

This touches on perhaps the biggest problem facing Spain: with no national restrictions in place, regions have been left to go it alone.

Take the Canary Islands, which is desperate to bring its contagion rates down, it wanted to keep the curfew but the courts refused.

A popular holiday destination for British tourists, the islands’ government wants to bring its coronavirus contagion rate below 50 per 100,000 people – the level set by the UK government to declare a destination safe for travel. Currently it stands at 86.

Spain’s Covid-19 contagion rate has been falling steadily for months, with the 14-day rate at 166 per 100,000 people on Thursday.

However, in some regions the contagion rates are much higher.

Around 1,500 extra police will be on duty in Madrid to stop parties which could send the contagion rate higher. The Spanish capital has the second highest contagion rate in the country at 267.42.

In Valencia, which has the second lowest contagion rate in Spain at 32, the regional authorities have asked mayors of coastal towns to avoid the “unfortunate” scenes of last weekend.

Another encouraging sign is that in eight regions, including the Balearic Islands and La Rioja, the death rate has fallen to single figures between April 19 and 25, according to government figures.

Against this background the vaccine rate is proceeding apace.

Already 30 percent of Spaniards have had one dose of the Covid-19 vaccine, while 14.2 percent have received both.

Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez has claimed this week the country was within 100 days of achieving herd immunity.

This means the government has fixed August 18th as the date by which 70 percent of the population will be inoculated.

Analysts have suggested tying the country’s fate to a date whilst in the midst of an unpredictable pandemic with many coronavirus variants may be foolish.

We shall see.

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ANALYSIS

Will Spain have a sixth coronavirus wave?

While Covid infections are rising across Europe, Spain has managed to keep cases and hospitalisations low so far this autumn. But there are already signs things may be changing. 

people walk without masks on ramblas barcelona during covid times
Spain’s epidemiological situation is the most favourable in the EU and a sixth wave but will there be a sixth wave? Photo: Pau Barrena/AFP

Coronavirus cases have been rising quickly across Europe since October but not so in Spain, which has maintained one of the lowest infection, hospitalisation and death rates on the continent. 

According to prestigious medical publication The Lancet, Spain could well be on the verge of reaching herd immunity, a statement the country’s Health Minister tends to agree with.  

READ ALSO: Has Spain almost reached herd immunity?

Add the favourable epidemiological indicators to the almost 80 percent rate of full vaccination of Spain’s entire population and the immunity claim doesn’t seem so far-fetched. 

But if there’s one thing this pandemic has taught governments around the world – or should have – is to not assume Covid-19 can be eradicated after a few encouraging weeks. 

Not that Spain is letting down its guard, the general public continues to take mask wearing in indoor spaces seriously (outdoors as well even though not required in many situations) and there are still some regional restrictions in place. 

READ MORE: What Covid-19 restrictions are in place in Spain’s regions in November?

And yet, Covid infections are on the rise again, although not at the pace seen during previous waves of the virus. 

On Thursday November 4th Spain re-entered the Health Ministry’s “medium risk” category after the national fortnightly infection rate surpassed 50 cases per 100,000 people.

From Friday 5th to Monday 8th, it climbed five more points up to 58 cases per 100,000 inhabitants. 

It’s the biggest rise since last July but this shouldn’t be cause for alarm, especially as hospitalizations, ICU admissions and deaths all remain low and steady.

A closer look at the stats shows that 1.52 percent of hospital beds across the country are currently occupied by Covid patients, 4.41 percent in the case of ICU beds. 

Daily Covid deaths in October were under 20 a day, the lowest rate since August 2020. 

With all this in mind, is a sixth wave of the coronavirus in Spain at all likely?

According to a study by the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington, Spain will have a sixth wave.

The Seattle-based research group predicts an increase in infections in Spain from the second half of November, which will skyrocket in December reaching the highest peak towards the end of the year. 

The country would reportedly need about 24,000 beds for Covid patients (4,550 for critical ones) and there would be almost 2,000 deaths. 

Increased social interactions would mean that on December 30th alone, daily Covid infections in Spain could reach 92,000, the study claims. 

If restrictions were tightened ahead of the holiday period, including the use of face masks, the sixth wave’s peak wouldn’t be as great, IHME states

It’s worth noting that the IHME wrongly predicted that Spain wouldn’t be affected by a fifth wave whereas it ended up causing more than a million infections and 5,000 deaths. 

two elderly women in san sebastian during covid times
The vaccination rate among over 70s in Spain is almost 100 percent. Photo: Ander Guillenea/AFP
 

The latest message from Spain’s Health Minister Carolina Darias is that currently “the virus is cornered” in the country, whilst admitting that there was a slight rise in cases. 

“I do not know if there will be a sixth wave, but first we must remember that immunisation is not complete in all patients despite vaccinations,” Dr. José Polo , president of the Spanish Society of Primary Care Physicians (Semergen), told El Periódico de España

“That’s because 100 percent effectiveness doesn’t exist in any drug, or in any medicine”.

Despite having one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, Spain still has around 4.2 million eligible people who haven’t been vaccinated, mostly people aged 20 to 40. 

The majority of Covid hospitalisations across Spain are patients who have not been vaccinated: 90 percent in the Basque Country, 70 percent in Catalonia and 60 percent in Andalusia.

Among Covid ICU patients, 90 percent of people in critical condition across all regions are unvaccinated. 

“Although there are many people vaccinated in Spain, there will be an increase in cases because we know how the virus is transmitted and when the cold comes and the evenings are darker we will tend to go indoors, and the virus spreads there,” Cesar Carballo, Vice President of the Spanish Society of Emergency Medicine of Madrid, told La Sexta news.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has already warned that Europe is at a  “critical point of regrowth”  and that it has once again become the “epicentre”  of the pandemic, due to the generalised spike in cases in recent weeks.

Does that mean that Spain’s daily infections won’t be in the thousands again as winter nears? Or that regional governments won’t reintroduce Covid measures ahead of Christmas to prevent this from happening?

Nothing is for certain, but as things stand Spain’s epidemiological situation is the most favourable in the EU and a sixth wave seems unlikely, but not impossible.

The Spanish government continues to push ahead with its vaccination campaign, reopening its vaccination centres, administering booster shots to its most vulnerable and considering vaccinating under 12s to meet an immunity target of 90 percent. 

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