Spanish government to wait ‘two or three weeks’ before taking tougher coronavirus measures

The Health Ministry maintains that more time must pass to assess whether the current restrictions, such as the nighttime curfew and perimetral lockdown, are working

Territorial Policy Minister Carolina Darias and Health Minister Salvador Illa at a meeting of the Inter-Territorial Council of the National Health System on Wednesday.
Territorial Policy Minister Carolina Darias and Health Minister Salvador Illa at a meeting of the Inter-Territorial Council of the National Health System on Wednesday.Borja Puig de la Bellacasa (EFE)
Pablo Linde

The Spanish Health Ministry remains hopeful that the restrictions introduced by regional governments under the state of alarm will be able to curb the spread of the coronavirus. This would avoid the need for a home lockdown like the one seen during the first wave of the pandemic, when millions of Spaniards were confined to their homes. The government wants to avoid this at all costs in order to prevent further damage to the Spanish economy, which lost around one million jobs in March and April due to the strict lockdown.

Health Minister Salvador Illa said on Wednesday that “two or three weeks” are needed to see if the current measures have been able to reduce transmission rates.

“We have to be strict and give ourselves enough time for the measures to have an effect, which is between two and three weeks. Not before,” he said at a press conference on Wednesday, following a meeting of the Inter-Territorial Council of the National Health System, which brings together central and regional healthcare chiefs.

Denial, trivializing the situation and uncivic and violent acts are not the way
Health Minister Salvador Illa

But Illa did not establish conditions under which a home lockdown will be required. Nor is it clear when the two-week deadline will be counted from, as the regions have been progressively introducing restrictions based on the advance of the pandemic.

Under the state of alarm, which was declared on October 26, the central government ordered a nighttime curfew across the entire country, with the exception of the Canary Islands. This measure will have been in place for two weeks as of Monday. Since the declaration of the emergency state, which gave central and regional authorities the power to apply restrictions on mobility, regional authorities have introduced additional measures aimed at containing the pandemic, such as perimetral lockdowns and the closure of the hostelry industry. Indeed, in the case of Navarre and Catalonia, all bars and restaurants in these regions have been closed for more than two weeks. In Navarre, the coronavirus incidence rate has been falling for days, while in Catalonia it continues to rise, albeit at a slower rate. Other regions, like Madrid, have been able to flatten the curve without introducing tougher restrictions.

But the uncertainty surrounding the conditions for a home lockdown is causing confusion among the public, according to Daniel López Acuña, a former official of the World Health Organization (WHO), who believes waiting two to three weeks “will have a high cost in terms of lives and the health system being overwhelmed.” But not all experts agree with this view: others who spoke to EL PAÍS say it is reasonable to wait and assess the impact of the measures introduced up until now.

At Wednesday’s press conference, Illa tried to avoid all mention of a home lockdown, which has already been introduced in several countries across Europe. “There has been no discussion on confinement beyond that from regions that have already expressed their opinion. Some had stated that this possibility can not be left out of sight,” said Illa, who has rejected home confinement measures on several occasions.

But a number of Spain’s regions are considering a home lockdown. The government of Castilla y León called again for shelter-in-place measures, which were formally requested by Asturias on Monday, as well as the North African exclave cities of Ceuta and Melilla. The health chief of Andalusia, Jesús Aguirre, has asked for “clear and unified criteria” for a home lockdown, reports Eva Saiz. Aguirre added that the government must “act as soon as possible before the evolution of the pandemic with a legislative development for confinement, be it in a healthcare area, province or region in general.”

Waiting two to three weeks will have a high cost in terms of lives and the health system being overwhelmed
Daniel López-Acuña, former WHO official

Basque authorities have called on the government to adapt the current state of alarm to allow home lockdowns to be introduced “if necessary.” The emergency state, which has been approved by parliament for six months, stops short of letting regions impose unilateral home confinements, meaning regions need authorization from the central government – which it has denied. And in Murcia, regional health chief Manuel Villegas, has complained that while there continues to be “many criteria and different models” to fight the virus, “there is only one way to take action.”

In the meantime, five of Spain’s 17 regions have toughened the coronavirus restrictions that can be applied under the state of alarm. Catalonia, Navarre, Castilla y León, Murcia and Galicia have ordered the closure of the hostelry sector, while Cantabria has banned indoor consumption at bars and restaurants.

The Health Ministry says that the measures adopted must be in place for a minimum of seven days. The exception to this rule are “epidemiological situations like long weekends,” when there is a large amount of travel. The Madrid government, for instance, will confine the region from Saturday to Monday ahead of a regional holiday on November 9.

The new round of restrictions led to disturbances last week with hundreds of people taking to the streets in several cities to protest the measures. On Wednesday, the Inter-Territorial Council of the National Health System signed a statement condemning these acts, committed largely by youths from anti-globalization and far-right movements.

“This is not the way,” said Illa. “The way is that which is guided by science and indicated by experts. We have to trust in that. Denial, trivializing [the situation] and uncivic and violent acts are not the way. The council has categorically and unanimously condemned them.”

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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