Spain’s regions unwilling to introduce strict restrictions despite rise in coronavirus cases

Experts warn existing measures are inefficient but political leaders are hesitant to take tougher steps

The center of Madrid on Friday.
The center of Madrid on Friday.ALEX ONCIU

After nearly two years of life with the coronavirus, much has been learned about how it spreads and what can be done to contain transmission. But in Spain, whether authorities or citizens are willing to implement those measures is another matter.

Transmission is climbing steadily: the 14-day incidence rate is now 511 cases per 100,000 people, putting the country in the highest-risk scenario according to the government’s traffic-light system. The new omicron variant is spreading and in Madrid, it already accounts for over 30% of diagnosed cases.

Even so, most regions – which are in charge of their own Covid-19 containment measures – have been unwilling to introduce strict restrictions of the kind that were in place a year ago. But Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has called regional leaders to a meeting on Wednesday to discuss possible new action.

Catalonia has already taken a step by announcing that all close contacts of positive cases must self-isolate regardless of their vaccination status. In the rest of Spain, fully vaccinated people are for now exempt from isolating except if the positive case was infected with the omicron variant.

A woman showing her Covid pass at a café in Seville on Monday morning.
A woman showing her Covid pass at a café in Seville on Monday morning. Jose Manuel Vidal (EFE)

Some regions are turning to the Covid pass – which proves vaccination, recovery or a recent negative test – in the hopes that it will help contain contagion. The measure has now been introduced in the regions of Andalusia, Aragón, the Canary Islands, Cantabria, Catalonia, Valencia, Murcia, Navarre, the Basque Country and La Rioja, as well as the North African exclave cities of Melilla and Ceuta, as reported by Spanish broadcaster RTVE. The activities it is required for ranges from region to region.

In Andalusia, the document went into effect on Sunday night and it will be required to enter food, drink and entertainment venues until January 15.

In the Valencia region, authorities are due to meet on Monday afternoon to consider extending the use of the Covid pass, which has been required since December 3 to access food, drink and entertainment venues that can hold over 50 people, as well as for musical events and other celebrations with more than 500 people in attendance, and for visits to hospitals and care homes.

In Castilla y León, the regional government is considering new restrictions for the hospitality sector besides the Covid pass, and a committee is due to meet on Monday to discuss the next moves.

But in Madrid, regional health chief Enrique Ruiz Escudero on Monday ruled out introducing the Covid pass or capping social gatherings during the holiday season. Instead, he urged people to simply act responsibly. “The best recommendation is individual responsibility and doing what works,” he said in statements to the radio station Onda Madrid, in reference to indoor masking, social distancing, vaccination and self-testing.

The best recommendation is individual responsibility and doing what works
Enrique Ruiz Escudero, Madrid health chief

Íñigo Urkullu, the premier of the Basque Country, where diagnosed cases are particularly high, said on Monday that he thinks it is important to introduce similar measures across the Spanish territory and to provide legal backing for the same. One of these measures, he said, should be the re-introduction of outdoor masking. “The disparity of responses and decisions is not positive,” said Urkullu about the regional differences in the way the pandemic is being addressed.

Other regions are for now only issuing recommendations. Galicia, Navarre and the Canary Islands are recommending a 10-person limit on private gatherings, and urging hospitality venues to encourage outdoor dining wherever possible.

So far, the only measures introduced by central and regional governments – the use of the Covid pass and restrictions on flights from high-risk countries – have shown little effect. Public health technicians have openly questioned the usefulness of the Covid pass to curb transmission, and said it might instead work as an incentive for unvaccinated people to take the step and get immunized.

The Balearic Islands have taken this the furthest, and are now asking healthcare workers to either get vaccinated or take three coronavirus tests a week. As for banning flights, this has only proved efficient in island nations such as Australia and New Zealand. The omicron variant is already circulating widely in Europe and banning flights cannot stop that.

Health experts advising central and regional governments last week proposed capping Christmas gatherings at 10 people, but the idea was rejected by their immediate superiors, the director generals of health, which is a more political role. One technician advising a regional government said that in recent days his team has been asked for “creative measures” against transmission that will not significantly alter people’s lives during the holiday season. But experts note that stopping an airborne virus largely depends on limiting contacts, particularly indoors.

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