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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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.