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FACE MASKS

UPDATE: When will masks stop being mandatory indoors in Spain?

Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has stressed that masks will “very soon” no longer be required in indoor public settings, but with Covid-19 infections still relatively high in the country, when is the mask rule likely to actually be scrapped?

When will masks stop being mandatory indoors?
Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez removes his face mask as he addresses media during an EU summit. When will his government lift the indoor face mask requirement? Photo: Olivier HOSLET/POOL / AFP

READ THIS UPDATE FIRST: Spain to scrap indoor face mask rule on April 20th

In early February, the Spanish government decided that face masks would no longer be required outdoors after making their use mandatory again in December 2021 when Spain was struggling to contain record Omicron cases.

As the country’s sixth coronavirus wave has since subsided, the attention has turned to when face masks will stop being compulsory in indoor public settings.

On Sunday March 6th, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez stated for the second time in a week that the rule would be lifted “soon, very soon”.

Sánchez did stress however that the decision is in the hands of Spanish Health Minister Carolina Darias, who will have to meet with regional authorities and health experts to reach some consensus regarding the indoor face mask rule.

Spanish epidemiologists did suggest in February that masks indoors would likely continue to be mandatory until at least the summer of 2022, either when the fortnightly infection rate falls below 50 cases per 100,000 inhabitants or when there is no longer community transmission.

Spain’s epidemiological situation has improved drastically over the past month but the infection rate is still above 400 cases per 100,000.

Although scientific evidence will no doubt play a big part in this, the final decision will more likely be influenced by the Spanish government’s change in stance regarding the pandemic and its desire to return to normality, particularly in terms of tourism and the economy. 

Spain wants to lead a global push for Covid-19 to be monitored as an endemic disease similar to seasonal influenza, which explains why this week they will go from reporting on infections on a daily basis to twice a week, and from publishing vaccination rates every work day to once a week.

France, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Norway and the United Kingdom are some of the European countries that have already lifted their indoor face mask rules. 

Most Spanish health experts continue to be in favour of a gradual de-escalation of the indoor mask rule, rather than eliminating the requirement from all indoor public spaces all at once.

In mid-February Spain’s paediatricians proposed that masks first be scrapped from school classrooms, acting as “a mirror for the rest of society” of what this would mean for Covid infections. 

So far, Catalonia is the only region to have done this, and not all paediatricians agree with the proposal, even though children’s capacity to develop serious Covid symptoms and infect others is lower than for adults.  

So the main question that remains is what Prime Minister Sánchez meant by “very soon”, as well as the conclusions reached at a key meeting between Spain’s Health Ministry and the regions on March 10th in Zaragoza. 

For epidemiologists, removing the rule in the coming days would be too soon, and most believe the fortnightly infection rate must, at the very least, be below 100 cases for masks to no longer be required indoors. 

At the current rate of descent, this could happen in three to five weeks. 

The Catalan ‘case study’, the only region which is currently testing how ditching masks from classrooms will affect infections, could also play a pivotal role in deciding whether masks are not required in some indoor settings but are still mandatory in others.

Whatever the outcome, a final decision by Spain’s health ministry will affect the whole national territory as mask regulations –  unlike other Covid restrictions – are set by the Spanish government, not the regional governments.

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FACE MASKS

Face masks to remain mandatory on public transport in Spain until March 2023

The Spanish government's health experts have agreed not to review face mask usage on public transport until March 2023, a new report has found, by which stage almost a whole year will have passed since other face mask rules were lifted.

Face masks to remain mandatory on public transport in Spain until March 2023

Although masks haven’t been mandatory in indoor public settings (except hospitals, pharmacies, care homes and other health-related centres) since April 20th 2022, face coverings must still be worn on public transport in Spain, such as on buses, planes, taxis, metro carriages and trains.

According to a report published in Spanish news site Voz Populi, Spain’s Emergency Unit has agreed not to review Spain’s face mask rules until March 2023, even though all other Covid-19 domestic and travel restrictions were lifted before the summer of 2022.

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”.

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

“We’re taking the German approach,” the Emergency Unit source told Voz Populi about the fact that Germany is the only other country in Europe with similar mask-wearing rules to Spain.

On October 1st, new measures were brought into force in Germany stating that passengers over the age of 14 must wear FFP2 masks on long-distance trains rather than surgical ones, with the German government saying it will not review the legislation until April 2023.

Fernando Simón, Spain’s Health Emergencies chief, told journalists recently that “it’s okay to wait a little bit to see how the disease evolves” before making a decision regarding the complete removal of face masks.

However, if Spanish health experts are indeed looking to follow in the footsteps of Germany, there is even a possibility that the return of face masks to all indoor public settings this winter could happen, or at least a debate about it. 

An increase in Covid and flu cases that’s overburdened hospitals this autumn, as well as the emergence of the new Omicron subvariant BQ.1, has resulted in German authorities considering whether they should bring back old Covid-19 restrictions for the winter months.

Spain is also starting to see an increase in Covid and flu infections, and talk of an eighth coronavirus wave is rumbling in the background, but there has been no mention yet by Health Ministry representatives of a possible return to indoor face mask wearing across the board.

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