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COVID-19 RULES

Is Spain ready to get rid of masks indoors?

After 700 days, Spain has finally said goodbye to the vast majority of its indoor face mask rules, but is the country actually ready to do so?

Is Spain ready to get rid of masks indoors?
Spain says goodbye to face masks indoors today, but is it the right decision? Photo: JOEL SAGET / AFP

Spain has had one of Europe’s strictest mask-wearing policies, requiring people to wear them both outdoors and indoors for long periods of the pandemic, long after other countries had dropped them.

Since January 2022, the vast majority of Spain’s neighbouring countries have been lifting the obligation to wear masks indoors. Only Portugal, Slovakia, Malta, Italy and Greece have maintained the rule.

The changes to the country’s mask rules were first announced on April 6th and were fully approved by Spain’s Council of Ministers on Tuesday April 19th.

From today, Wednesday April 20th, face masks will only be mandatory in hospitals and other health-related establishments, care homes and on all forms of public transport.

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

But with many across the country still even wearing masks outdoors, is Spain ready to get rid of masks indoors?

Are people in Spain ready?

Health Minister Carolina Darias said that the dropping of the indoor mask rule was “socially demanded” and that “it was the right moment for logical reasons”.

It means easier communication, particularly in such a social country, as well as the ability to see each other’s faces and smiles again and helps to express ourselves with more than just words and hand movements.

And as the warm weather approaches, it means people won’t have trouble breathing through a mask in the summer heat, which was very common last year. 

The indoor mask-wearing rule has also been dropped in schools and has mostly been welcomed by experts in this situation, saying that mask-wearing has had significant effects on children’s social and verbal development.

According to the hospital group HM Hospitales, the use of masks has caused a 20 percent increase in consultations for children’s speech problems.

Mask rules have also seen an increase in síndrome de la cara vacía or mask-fishing among teens – a phobia or feeling of anxiety by exposing your face and taking off your mask.  

There is no official government poll yet asking Spaniards if they think the lifting of the indoor face mask rule has come too early or not, but leading Spanish newspapers such as El País and El Mundo have run their own polls with fairly even results between “yes” and “no”. Younger people appear more likely to be in favour of the mask mandate being scrapped and the older generations tend to be against the lifting of the indoor mask rules.

Have your say in our poll below: Will you still wear a mask indoors in Spain?

 

What the experts say

The Spanish government has made it clear that this decision has been made under the recommendations of experts. However, not all virologists and epidemiologists agree that dropping the indoor mask rule is a good idea.  

Opinions among Spanish health experts seem to be as divided as among the general population. While some say that we need to return to normality, others say that it’s too soon and that we need to see what effect the Easter holidays have had on the spread of Covid before making such a decision.  

The Spanish Society of Epidemiology (SEE) said that dropping the rule “on a certain date cannot be a measure based on the evidence of the epidemiological situation” as it was done without knowing the evolution of the pandemic over Semana Santa.  

Virologist Sonia Zúñiga of Spain’s National Centre for Biotechnology (CNB-CSIC) believes that it would be “wise” to wait before eliminating masks. “It could be sensible” to remove them “gradually”, starting with environments with lower risk, such as schools, since children have “a much lower risk of suffering from severe disease.  

Some experts recall that the pandemic is not over yet and they don’t rule out having to take steps backward if the situation worsens. However, Salvador Pero, an expert in public health argues that “the prospects are good, as many are vaccinated”. 

According to the latest stats, 86 percent of people in Spain have been fully vaccinated. 

What is the epidemiological situation in Spain right now? 

In the last 14 days, Spain has recorded 505.9 Covid cases per 100,000 inhabitants.

On Tuesday April 19th there were 5,635 patients hospitalised for Covid-19 in the country, 15 percent more than a week ago. In the ICU however, admissions continue to fall. According to the latest health report, 345 people are in intensive care, 23 fewer than seven days earlier.

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COVID-19 ALERT

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.

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