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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 announces end of public transport face mask rule

Spain's Health Minister has announced that in the coming days masks will no longer be mandatory on planes, buses, trains, taxis and other means of public transport.

Spain announces end of public transport face mask rule

Spanish Health Minister Carolina Darias on Thursday confirmed that face masks would no longer be compulsory on public transport, a measure which has been in place in Spain for almost three years. 

“I will raise the proposal of eliminating the mandatory use of masks on public transport”, she said, adding that next week she will convene with the Interterritorial Council of the National Health System to “put this measure into effect”.  

Darias did not specify exactly when this would happen, although government agreements are usually approved the following day in the Official State Gazette (BOE), so the official end to the mask rule looks set to be on February 8th.

The minister did clarify however that masks would still be mandatory in health settings such as health centres and hospitals “as health experts advise”. 

Last week, Darias reported the possibility of eliminating the mandatory mask rule in pharmacies, but this is currently being “weighed up” by health experts.  

Manuel Franco, an expert in Public Health and a member of the Spanish Society of Public Health and Sanitary Administration (Sespas) explained that “the World Health Organisation (WHO) is already considering the decision to lift the public health emergency warning for Covid-19” and adds that “if this goes ahead, it would make no sense to maintain the mask rule”.  

The use of masks ceased to be mandatory outdoors almost a year ago, on February 10th, 2022.

Then, two months later on April 20th, the government announced they wouldn’t be required indoors either, except in health centres and on public transport. 

The latest bulletin of Sentinel Surveillance of Acute Respiratory Infection in Primary Care (ARIs) and in Hospitals (SARI), announced a drop in infections and hospitalisations and said that the rates for Covid-19 remain stable.

The decision to end the mask rule in February comes after health experts who advise the Spanish Ministry of Health said that masks should no longer be required on public transport

On Wednesday, January 25th the director of the Health Alerts and Emergencies Coordination Centre of the Ministry of Health (CCAES), Fernando Simón, assured that the end of the mask rule on transport would be announced “shortly” either “next week or the following”.  

Then, on Thursday morning, government spokesperson, Isabel Rodríguez, stated that the decision to remove the mask on public transport would be taken “immediately, when possible”, but pointed out that the government was looking at the situation in China first.