Spain’s northeastern region of Catalonia will lift its nighttime curfew on Friday. The decision was made on Monday by the Catalan government’s Covid-19 advisory committee, which took into account a recent slowdown in the growth rate of reported coronavirus infections as well as low hospitalization figures. But health experts are cautioning against removing restrictions too soon at a time when transmission is still worryingly high.
The 1-6am curfew was introduced on December 24, in the middle of the Christmas holidays, when cases were soaring. Experts have noted that the sixth wave of the coronavirus, which is fueled by the highly contagious omicron strain, is not over yet.
The Catalan government’s spokesperson, Patrícia Plaja, had already said last week that regional authorities might lift the curfew if coronavirus figures followed expected trends. At the time, cases had grown 11% over the previous seven days, significantly lower than the peaks of 80% and 95% in December.
Catalonia’s epidemiological situation is in fact now worse than when the curfew was introduced on Christmas Eve in a bid to curb contagion at a time of increased social interaction. Back then the number of diagnosed positives was less than half of what it is currently.
There were 200,000 new infections in the seven-day period between January 7 and 13, according to the Catalan health department. This is the highest figure since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, and higher than the 138,000 cases diagnosed between December 31 and January 6. Cases have grown by 36% over the seven-day period, and many more infections may be going unreported now that home testing kits are widely available in pharmacies.
“In recent days we have seen better-than-expected figures, but these did not consolidate. They are now moving at the expected pace,” said Enric Álvarez, an expert at pandemic forecasts and a member of the research group at the Computational Biology and Complex Systems (Biocom-SC) department of Catalonia’s Polytechnic University.
But the regional government – which is in charge of its own coronavirus response – feels that lifting the curfew is justified by, among other things, the low hospitalization rate compared with previous waves fueled by the delta strain. According to the latest figures released on Monday by the Catalan health department, there are 2,617 hospitalized Covid-19 patients, 114 more than a day earlier. Of these, 522 are in intensive care, six more than on Sunday.
In recent days we have seen better-than-expected figures, but these did not consolidateEnric Álvarez, member of Biocom-SC
If hospitals are feeling less strained than at other times during the pandemic, it is a different story in primary healthcare centers, which are being pushed past capacity due to a flood of requests for tests, combined with staffing shortages as healthcare workers get infected and are forced to stay home.
Health experts have expressed concern about the situation. “If we reopen too fast, we run the risk of having another spike in infections like we’ve seen at other times,” said Magda Campins, head of preventive medicine at Vall d’Hebron hospital in Barcelona and president of the Catalan government’s advisory committee. Campins said that her personal opinion is that it is necessary to “keep existing restrictions in place,” although this does not include the curfew because of “a lack of scientific evidence” about its usefulness.
Catalonia has other restrictions in place. Night venues remain closed and there is a 10-person cap on social gatherings. Food and drink establishments can only work at 50% of indoor capacity while this figure is 70% for sports and cultural events.
Josep Maria Argimon, the Catalan health chief, on Monday said the recent slowdown in the seven-day case growth was good news, but called for prudence. “In recent days we have been slowing down, although not at a great pace,” he said during a visit to the pharmaceutical company Hipra in Girona. “We have to be very prudent this week and see whether we reach the peak [of the wave] or not. This week is going to be key from that point of view.”
Argimon also said that the Catalan government has asked its science advisory committee to consider whether it is still necessary to request the Covid pass at events and venues.