Will Spain scrap the outdoor face mask rule today?

The Spanish Parliament will vote on Tuesday to decide whether it will lift the requirement of wearing a face mask in outdoor public spaces, a rule which was reintroduced on Christmas Eve as Omicron cases exploded in the country. 

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez removes his face mask to give a press conference.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez removes his face mask to give a press conference. Face masks have been compulsory outdoors in Spain for a second time since Christmas Eve 2021. (Photo by LLUIS GENE / AFP)

UPDATE: The Spanish Parliament on Tuesday night voted in favour of keeping the requirement of wearing masks in outdoor public spaces, following a controversial vote which has been described as “blackmail” and “a joke”. Find out more by clicking here

Monday January 31st 2022 marked two years since the first case of the coronavirus was detected in Spain. More than 700 days later, the country’s Covid infection tally is now above ten million. 

There have been just as many cases during this sixth coronavirus wave – 4.8 million since October – than during all previous waves (4.9 million cases), with the Omicron variant to blame for this. 

The high transmissibility of this Covid-19 strain is what pushed the Spanish government to make face masks compulsory outdoors again on December 22nd, a rule applicable from Christmas Eve 2021 until now. 

The decision, equally as unpopular among a population with pandemic fatigue as with health experts who argued it would have a “minimum impact” on infection rates, is set to be debated in the Spanish Parliament on Tuesday. 

READ MORE: ‘Minimum impact’ – What Spain’s health experts think of the outdoor face mask rule

Spain’s fortnightly infection rate was around 700 cases per 100,000 when the outdoor face mask rule returned and the rate is now above 3,000.

So will the Spanish Parliament get rid of the rule?

Opposition parties PP, Vox and Ciudadanos have announced they will vote to revoke the rule, although among coalition government members and their political allies there isn’t such a clear, common stance yet. 

Spanish Health Minister Carolina Darias continues to defend that “face masks are one of the measures that help most”, although her comments also referred to mask-wearing indoors. 

On Friday, Darias told journalists that “all the data shows that we’ve passed the peak” of Spain’s sixth coronavirus wave as “the infection rate drop is  consolidated day after day”.  

So it may be that this milestone, coupled with the overall criticism of the measure from virologists, spurs Spain’s left-wing coalition government to vote in favour of scrapping the outdoor face mask legislation for the whole national territory. 

What seems unlikely is that there will be changes to the rules regarding mask wearing in indoor public spaces, for which infections would have to be in a low risk category for health authorities to consider. 

Face masks were first made compulsory in public in Spain in May 2020 as the country emerged from its first full lockdown.

In March 2021, the Spanish government tightened the rules to require people to wear masks in almost all indoor and outdoor settings even if people kept to the safety distance, unless the activity was incompatible with mask wearing ie. eating, drinking, sunbathing, running etc

The backlash it caused after locals and tourists realised this would mean they would have to wear a mask while sunbathing or at the pool led Spanish authorities to tweak the legislation to allow some exceptions. 

Wearing a face mask outdoors when a safe distance of 1.5 metres from others could be kept wasn’t compulsory from June 26th 2021 until December 24th 2022.

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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.