Spain to scrap indoor face mask rule on April 20th

The Spanish government on Wednesday proposed that masks no longer be required in most indoor public settings from Wednesday April 20th 2022, just after the Easter holidays rather than during as had been suggested. 

Spain to scrap indoor face mask rule on April 20th
Masks have been compulsory in indoor public settings in Spain since May 2020, with a few exceptions such as for eating and drinking at bars and restaurants. (Photo by ANDER GILLENEA / AFP)

Spain’s Health Minister Carolina Darias on Wednesday proposed to the country’s 17 regional authorities that face mask legislation for most indoor settings be removed on Tuesday April 19th 2022.

If the Spanish government goes ahead with its plans and approves the Royal Decree on April 19th 2022 rather than earlier, the new indoor mask rules are likely to be in force the next day on Wednesday April 20th. 

CONFIRMED: Spain approves law that ends indoor mask rule on April 20th

The proposal comes after weeks of negotiations and toing-and-froing, with some regions calling for the rule to be lifted as soon as possible whilst other autonomous communities as well as health experts have asked for caution. 

Last week, Fernando Simón, head of Spain’s Health Alerts and Emergencies, suggested that the chosen date by Spanish health authorities would be on April 12th or 13th, during the Easter holidays. 

This had caused concern among epidemiologists who feared that allowing masks to be removed from indoor settings during a period of increased travel and social gatherings could lead to a seventh wave of coronavirus in the country. 

For the more prudent health experts in Spain, masks should remain compulsory until at least the summer of 2022, when the fortnightly infection rate falls below 50 cases per 100,000 inhabitants or when there is no longer community transmission.

Over the past three weeks, the incidence of the virus in Spain has plateaued at around 450 cases per 100,000 people. 

But the Spanish government is determined to continue finding ways to treat Covid-19 like another endemic disease similar to the flu, having recently decided to stop counting and reporting on each and every case and removing quarantines for asymptomatic and mild cases

Removing the indoor face mask rule is a further step in this direction, and the Spanish government is well aware that in other European countries such as the United Kingdom, Belgium, Sweden, the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, Finland and France masks indoors haven’t been compulsory for weeks, if not months now. 

Even though the legislation is still not official, sources close to the Spanish government suggest that regional authorities are on board with the proposed April 20th date. Regardless of any potential opposition, the decision to keep or scrap Spain’s mask rules rests solely in the hands of the national government, which has now voiced its intentions and provided an end date. 

UPDATE: Where will you still need to wear a mask indoors in Spain?

Further details about in which indoor settings masks will still be required and in which not are yet to be disclosed, as it is unlikely there will be a blanket lifting of face masks in all settings. 

Hospitals, care homes and public transport may be among the indoor settings where masks continue to be required.

Face masks have been compulsory indoors in Spain since May 2020. In early February 2022, the Spanish government lifted the rule for outdoor mask wearing, with a few exceptions. 

READ MORE: When do you still have to wear a mask outdoors in Spain?

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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.