Spain considers allowing travel to see family for Christmas

Health officials are meeting on Wednesday to draft a common set of guidelines to celebrate safely; measures might include exceptions to sealed borders for people visiting relatives

Civil Guard officers enforcing the perimetral confinement in the city of Zaragoza.
Civil Guard officers enforcing the perimetral confinement in the city of Zaragoza.Javier Cebollada (EFE)

Spanish authorities are hoping to walk out of a Wednesday meeting of central and regional health officials with a joint coronavirus plan for Christmas.

Policymakers have been trying to hammer out a common set of restrictions and recommendations for the holiday season, when a lot of travel is expected to take place as friends and family gather for Christmas celebrations.

Government sources have told EL PAÍS that one of the options on the table is allowing meetings of up to 10 people, as proposed by officials in Catalonia, the Basque Country and Madrid. This is up from the government’s original suggestion of six-person gatherings.

December is a month of noticeably higher mobility and increased social contacts. And these are the two transmission vectors for the virus
Health Minister Salvador Illa

Officials are also thinking of keeping regional borders sealed wherever these confinements are already in place, with one exception: travel across regional lines would be allowed for family gatherings. The idea is to let families come together for Christmas on a year that’s been marked by one of the world’s strictest lockdowns, besides other restrictions on mobility, but no final decision has been made yet.

As Spain struggles to contain a second wave of the coronavirus, many regional governments have sealed their borders in an effort to restrict movement. Only Galicia, Extremadura, Madrid, the Balearic Islands and the Canary Islands have not introduced such restrictions, although Madrid will impose a temporary regional confinement between December 4 and 13 to prevent travel during two back-to-back holidays. Most regions have imposed some kind of border closure, either at the regional, provincial or municipal level, and do not allow travel except for essential business such as work or medical appointments. These closures are set to undergo review in the coming days.

If the planned measures are adopted, the same government sources said it will mean that family members can travel across regional borders to visit relatives, but a group of friends may not go spend a few days in a holiday rental located in another region if border restrictions apply there.

Health Minister Salvador Illa has repeatedly said that regional governments will have the last word on these matters. Whatever document comes out of the meeting on Wednesday, its contents are expected to be recommendations rather than mandatory measures. But no matter what restrictions apply, Illa has already warned that this year, Christmas is going to be “different.”

“December is a month of noticeably higher mobility and increased social contacts. And these are the two transmission vectors for the virus,” he told the Senate on Tuesday. “That is why I’m hoping that at the meeting [on Wednesday] we will be able to agree on measures.”

Health Minister Salvador Illa in the Senate on Tuesday.
Health Minister Salvador Illa in the Senate on Tuesday.EUROPA PRESS/J. Hellín. POOL (Europa Press)

Illa said that the measures under consideration “will have to do with aspects of mobility, social contact and all kinds of activities that take place during the holidays, but which must be done differently from other years.”

The minister insisted that the coronavirus situation in Spain “continues to be cause for concern even though it’s improving” and asked for “lots of prudence during the Christmas holidays.”

Experts from the ministry and from regional governments have been meeting for two weeks in an effort to agree on a common framework, although rules are not expected to be exactly the same across all 19 territories (17 regions and the two exclave cities of Ceuta and Melilla).

A ministry document sent to regional health departments last week proposed limits of six people on social gatherings and a 1am curfew on the nights of Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. Many regional officials expressed support for these guidelines, but some made different proposals.

Madrid, for instance, suggested raising the limit on gatherings to 10 people, a move that was later supported by Catalonia and the Basque Country. Galicia asked to leave children out of the tally in the rule on limited gatherings.

Public health experts consulted by this newspaper underscored that the only way to minimize risk is to avoid bringing together people from different households.

But if people choose to visit relatives, which many are expected to do, experts offer a few recommendations, such as avoiding social contact as much as possible in the days prior to the visit. A diagnostic test could also be a good idea, although a negative result should not be taken as a guarantee. In all cases, people should use face masks as much as possible, wash hands often, keep their distance, ventilate indoor spaces and spend as much time outdoors as possible.

Catalonia’s Christmas plan

The acting premier of Catalonia, Pere Aragónes, announced on Wednesday that the regional government is likely to set a 1.30am curfew for Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve – a proposal that Madrid has also made. The news came after Josep Maria Argimon, the region’s secretary of public health, confirmed on Monday that gatherings will be limited to 10 people from two different households. According to Argimon, it is “possible” that children under the age of 14 will not be counted in this number as “their risk of contagion is small.”

English version by Susana Urra.

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