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UPDATE: Will Spain bring back tougher Covid restrictions for Christmas?

The Spanish government had initially ruled out old Covid restrictions over Christmas, but consistently rising infections, the Omicron variant and calls for action from health officials are opening up the debate again.

Spanish police officers stand guard as people shop for Christmas in the centre of Madrid on December 7, 2020.
Spanish police officers stand guard as people shop for Christmas in the centre of Madrid on December 7, 2020. Photo: Oscar del Pozo/AFP

A lot has changed since this article was initially published on November 11th.

Spain had one of the lowest Covid infection rates and hospitalisations across Europe and prestigious medical publication The Lancet said the country was on the cusp of reaching herd immunity, making it an example for its neighbours.

“This Christmas is going to be better than the last,” Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said on Wednesday November 10th, stressing that Spain’s infection rate is “far below” that of other European countries thanks to the “high vaccination rate” and “low denialism”.

Ten days away from Christmas and Spain’s fortnightly infection rate now stands at 413 cases per 100,000 people (it stood at 63 on November 11th) and eight regions have reached their high risk level for hospital and ICU pressure.

There are also now 38 confirmed cases of the new Omicron variant, half through community transmission, and more than half of the country’s 17 regions now require a Covid health pass for daily affairs, something which was consistently ruled out by regional judges during the summer period for breaching fundamental rights.

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

The Covid vaccination of children aged 5 to 11 also started on Wednesday, a decision which many health experts had ruled as unnecessary in Spain given the high vaccination rate among adults. 

This pandemic appears to be proving to people in Spain and elsewhere in the world that the situation can dramatically worsen in a very short period of time, and measures and restrictions that previously seemed excessive can again seem justified. 

So is there a possibility that old restrictions such as capacity and table limits, curfews or early opeing hours really make a return to Spain this Christmas?

On December 1st, Spain’s government 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.

Health Minister Carolina Darias concluded at the time that her government was not considering any “other scenarios other than reinforcing vaccination”.

However, on the same day health experts who advise Spain’s regions on public health sent a list of recommendations in which they ask that the hospitality industry limit the number of diners per table to 10 and that those who attend Christmas dinners and meals at home undergo an antigen test beforehand.

The limit of people per table is one of the restrictions that Spaniards had to undergo for months in the aftermath of the full national lockdown, whereas the antigen test measure isn’t something which has been applied for domestic matters yet in the country in most cases.

It’ll be the regional governments who decide if such proposals remain recommendations or official restrictions. 

On Tuesday, Valencia’s regional leader ruled out the possibility of previous Covid restrictions over the Christmas period in the region, saying it would be “like taking a step back”.

Catalonia, the Basque Country and La Rioja have also announced their governments will not reintroduce old restrictions during the festive period. 

On the other hand, the Galician government is considering limiting meetings over Christmas to 8 people, something which has already been approved in the Canary islands for islands on risk level 2 (down to 6 people for level 3 and 4). Bars and restaurants that use the Covid health pass in the archipelago will also be allowed longer opening hours and more capacity.

But for the most part regional governments are not in favour of the old Covid restrictions returning, or instead believe the requirement of the Covid health passport for domestic matters in their territory is enough to limit infections.

There may be cancellations or limits on crowds for large events or other establishments over the festive period as cases rise, but the evidence suggests that overall tough Covid restrictions seen at earlier stages of the pandemic will not make a return, although it still won’t be a normal Navidad.

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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 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.