Spain rules out new restrictions against Omicron variant

Spain's government has ruled out bringing back domestic Covid restrictions following the discovery of the second case of the Omicron strain in the country, preferring to avoid measures that “slow down the economy” and recommending smaller social gatherings instead.

People queue to buy Christmas lottery tickets at the popular
People queue to buy Christmas lottery tickets at the popular "Dona Manolita" lottery outlet in Madrid in 2020. The Spanish government is against bringing back Covid restricitions that were in place last Christmas. Photo: Oscar del Pozo/AFP

Although Spain has tightened international travel restrictions in the face of the worrying but still largely unknown Omicron variant, the national government doesn’t want to reintroduce domestic restrictions seen at previous stages of the pandemic. 

When asked on Tuesday if there could be any further lockdown or states of alarm in Spain after Christmas or if capacity limits for the hospitality sector and shops could return, Health Minister Carolina Darias said such measures were “a thing of the past”.

What Spanish health authorities have called for is for people to limit the number of participants taking part in social gatherings over Christmas especially, although this remains a recommendation and no number has been given. 

“If we look back at November 30th 2020, we see that Spain had a fortnightly infection rate of 275 per 100,000 people but the impact on ICUs was 27 percent Covid occupancy, today we have 7 percent,” Darias argued.

“As for Covid hospital bed occupancy, it stood at 13 percent then and today it’s at 3 percent. 

“And the most relevant data of all , there were around 1,000 Covid deaths in that week but this week we’re at 90 Covid deaths”.

Darias concluded that her government is therefore not considering any “other scenarios other than reinforcing vaccination”.

Government spokesperson Isabel Rodríguez also stated in a press conference on Tuesday that “what matters is vaccination”, seeing vaccines and facemasks as the “tools for success” against the virus. 

“After 15 months fighting the virus we’ve learnt how to deal with it without having to stop the economy in its tracks,” she stated.

“Stopping the virus without stopping the economy” is thus the mantra of the Spanish government, which on Wednesday saw how the OECD revised Spain’s growth forecast downwards to 4.5 percent for 2021. 

“Quite honestly, the epidemiological data does not force us to envision a scenario where we have to adopt restrictions, all the decisions we make will be to ensure the path of economic recovery,” Rodríguez stressed.

Two cases of the Omicron variant have so far been detected in Spain, both in Madrid and both asymptomatic people who had recently been in South Africa. There are currently other possible cases in Barcelona and Valladolid. 

Spain’s Centre for the Coordination of Health Alerts and Emergencies was the health department that called for social gatherings in Spain this Christmas to be kept small, classifying the Omicron variant as “of concern” and of high transmission risk. 

Last Christmas, Spanish health authorities caused confusion by suggesting that only “allegados” – a term that’s rarely used and roughly means people in your inner circle – should meet over the Christmas period.

The one restriction which will be present in several regions of Spain this Christmas is the requirement of the Covid health pass to enter bars, restaurants, hospitals, events and more. So far, seven autonomous communities have had the measure approved by the regional high courts.

READ MORE: Which regions in Spain now require a Covid health pass for daily affairs?

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Spain’s Iberia calls for government to scrap face mask rule on planes

Spain’s flagship airline Iberia has criticised the Spanish government’s ongoing mask requirement for passengers on planes bound to the country, stressing that it “doesn’t make any sense” and “it affects tourism”.

Spain's Iberia calls for government to scrap face mask rule on planes

Although the majority of Spain’s domestic and travel Covid-19 restrictions were lifted before the summer of 2022, one of the only rules that still remains in place is the obligation of wearing a face mask on public transport. 

This includes aeroplanes, buses, trains, taxis and some ferries, but mask wearing isn’t compulsory at airports, ports or bus and train stations. 

For officials of Spain’s flagship airline Iberia, the time has come for this rule to be lifted.

“One of the airline industry’s main concerns is that mask wearing doesn’t make much sense,” Iberia’s Corporate Communications Director Juan Cierco said during a business talk organised by Spanish news agency Europa Press on Monday.

“We’re the only country along with China and one or two more that still has this rule.”

Cierco added, whilst putting on a mask to prove a point, that: “Here we are with seven ministers, none of them are wearing a mask, so getting on a plane now to or from Spain and being forced to wear a mask doesn’t make sense”.

The corporate director stressed that he wasn’t questioning the view of health experts but couldn’t understand why almost all other countries ditched the mask rule for public transport long ago.

“We should take off our masks because it’s affecting tourism and business now. Many international passengers tell us that they prefer to fly to other destinations or with other airlines, because 10 hours with the mask on board a plane, when it is no longer necessary or essential for health reasons, it just doesn’t make any sense”.

As things stand, the general rule is that cabin crew from all airlines have to tell passengers on planes bound to Spain that they have to wear masks. 

If on the other hand the aircraft is flying out of Spain, the mask rules of the country which the plane is flying to apply, which in almost all cases means face coverings aren’t required.

READ ALSO: Masks still compulsory on planes in Spain despite confusion

Spain’s Confederation of Bus Transport (Confebús), German company FlixBus and Madrid Municipal’s Transport Company (EMT) have also voiced their opposition to the lingering mask rule.

So, will Iberia’s views make a difference to the Spanish government’s stance regarding masks?

According to a report published in late October, the Spanish government’s health experts have agreed not to review face mask usage on public transport until March 2023.

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”.

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