Uncontrolled spread of coronavirus in Spain forces a change of scenario

The Madrid region and the Basque province of Álava have closed schools and universities, while the Health Ministry is recommending home working and travel restrictions

Pablo Linde
Health Minister Salvador Illa speaks to reporters on Monday.
Health Minister Salvador Illa speaks to reporters on Monday.Víctor Lerena (EL PAÍS)

The scenario in Spain with regard to the coronavirus has changed. By Tuesday afternoon there were more than 1,648 infections, some hospitals in Madrid were overwhelmed with patients, at least 101 people were in intensive care and there were 35 confirmed deaths from the Covid-19 disease.

On Tuesday, authorities announced a new raft of measures aimed at stopping the spread of the virus. All direct flights from Italy to Spanish airports will be banned until March 25, althrough the restrictions do not apply to flights from Spain to Italian airports.

Health Minister Salvador Illa also announced the cancellation of all events with an expected attendance of over 1,000 people in the regions of Madrid and La Rioja, as well as in the Basque cities of Vitoria and Labastida, the main transmission points in Spain.

The lower and upper houses of parliament have suspended all activity for a week, and all sports competitions, whether professional or amateur, must be held behind closed doors.

These moves come after the central government on Monday recognized that there are outbreaks that are not under control and the containment phase of the virus is now over. Health Minister Illa spoke on Monday evening to announce social-distancing measures in areas with “high transmission” rates.

In this new scenario, both Madrid and the Basque Country are now considered risk zones and tests will be carried out on anyone who is presenting symptoms

Also on Monday, the Health Ministry took the decision to close all schools and universities in the Madrid region, a measure that will affect more than 1.5 million students, from the primary level to college age. In Álava, schools will also be closing, but the scope will be limited to the capital and some municipalities, such as Labastida. Around 50,000 students will be affected in that area. On Tuesday, the regional government of La Rioja also announced that schools would be closed.

The school closures, which will come into effect on Wednesday, are in contrast to the arguments set forth by Fernando Simón, the director of the Health Ministry’s Coordination Center for Health Alerts, who had argued that such a measure could actually be counterproductive, given that many children would be placed in the care of older citizens, such as their grandparents, and who are the most vulnerable group when it comes to the novel coronavirus.

“The measures that we have adopted in the educational area seem effective to us to avoid transmission and contagion, in line with those taken by our European partners,” the minister said on Monday, the day after demonstrations were held throughout Spain on the occasion of International Women’s Day, which saw 120,000 people take to the streets of Madrid, and 50,000 protestors out in Barcelona.

The latest measures taken in Spain are in line with those of Italy, where outbreaks got out of control almost as soon as they appeared, and where the entire population is now under lockdown. This latter measure is not, for now, being considered in Spain, the minister said on Monday.

Citizens in Madrid and Álava work have been advised to work from home wherever possible, and avoid meetings

Outside of the education system, the health minister has recommended that citizens in Madrid and Álava work from home wherever possible, and avoid meetings. In the rest of Spanish territory, while the ministry insisted that the other outbreaks are under control, there has also been an increase in the recommended precautions. These measures include greater care of seniors, limiting unnecessary journeys, avoiding busy locations in the case of people who suffer chronic illnesses, and self-isolation for anyone who is presenting symptoms.

For those people who do have symptoms, the official advice is that they stay at home, and call the health services who will assess whether tests should be carried out to check for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the Covid-19 disease. Until now, the protocol in place established tests only for those people who had been in risk zones or who had had contact with people who already had Covid-19. In this new scenario, both Madrid and the Basque Country are now considered risk zones and tests will be carried out on anyone who is presenting symptoms. Outside of these two regions, medical staff will decide whether or not to carry them out.

Before the health minister spoke to the press, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez announced that his executive has spent two weeks preparing “a package” of measures to deal with the coronavirus crisis. He did not, however, specify what these were and stated that they would be announced “in the coming days.”

English version by Simon Hunter.

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