With Covid transmission falling, Spain’s regions consider lifting restrictions

Cantabria has lifted the use of the digital certificate and Catalonia and Andalusia are planning to follow suit. But experts warn measures are still needed to curb the sixth wave

A worker checks a Covid pass in Barcelona.
A worker checks a Covid pass in Barcelona.MASSIMILIANO MINOCRI (EL PAÍS)

The sixth wave of the coronavirus in Spain is starting to slow. On Wednesday, the Spanish Health Ministry reported that the 14-day incidence rate had fallen 20 points to 3,286 per 100,000. This is the second day in a row that this data point has dropped after two months on the rise. Experts, however, warn that it is too soon to speak of a downward trend, explaining that more time must pass for the decline to be confirmed. But while transmission remains at very high levels, the sixth wave is showing the first signs that the rise in cases is slowing down.

What’s more, while hospitals remain under strain, the situation is far from what it was during other waves. In February 2021, for example, there were more than 4,800 Covid-19 patients in intensive care units (ICUs), compared to the 2,230 recorded on Wednesday. Occupancy levels, however, remain high, with nearly one in four ICU beds occupied by a patient with Covid-19.

The Spanish Health Ministry, however, is opting for prudence. “Today [Wednesday], is the second day that we have had a change in trend and what’s important now is to see the evolution of all the indicators of risk level,” said Health Minister Carolina Darias. “When the situation is well consolidated, we will be in a position to address the next steps to take.”

In response to the surge in coronavirus infections in the leadup to Christmas, the Spanish government announced on December 23 that face masks would once again be mandatory outdoors. At the time, Darias said this measure would be in place “until the epidemiological situation improved.” Speaking on Wednesday, the minister said that more time is needed to determine whether the sixth wave is on a downward trend. “It’s necessary to assess the progress [of the pandemic] in the coming days and wait for the fall to be consolidated, which would indicate we have overcome the peak,” she explained.

The slowdown in cases, however, is already prompting action from Spain’s regions, which are responsible for the healthcare systems, Covid-19 vaccination drives and coronavirus restrictions in their territories.

Catalonia announced it will lift its nighttime curfew on Friday. But the rest of the restrictions, such as the 10-person limit on social gatherings, the closure of nightlife venues and reduced capacity in restaurants and sporting and cultural events, will remain in place. Although the northeastern region continues to register record-high numbers of new cases and has more than 500 Covid-19 patients in ICUs, the Catalan government defended its decision to lift the curfew on the grounds that the rate of contagions was slowing. “While we have not reached the peak, all the parameters indicate that the pandemic is slowing down. That’s why, the Catalan government will lift the curfew,” said Patricia Plaja, the spokesperson for the Catalan regional government.

The coronavirus restrictions are going to help us and should be in place for all of January and part of February
Daniel López-Acuña, former director of emergencies at the World Health Organization

Cantabria, meanwhile, has decided not to extend the requirement to show the European Union’s Digital COVID Certificate in order to enter restaurants. The courts approved the so-called “Covid passport” until January 19. For it to remain in place beyond this date, the Cantabria government needed to ask the courts for an extension – a move it has decided not to make. According to the Cantabria health department, the Covid pass is no longer able to achieve the goal of cutting transmission in indoor areas now that the omicron variant has become dominant. This new strain is highly transmissible, and is able to infect both the vaccinated and unvaccinated. “The measure is no longer effective and will no longer be applied,” said Reinhard Wallmann, the director general of Public Health.

For this same reason, Catalonia is also considering lifting the use of the Covid pass in the region. “We think that it has made an effect: it has raised awareness on the importance of vaccination and was also applied to make the public aware that we were in a pandemic situation,” said Carme Cabezas, the Catalan secretary of Public Health. “We are seeing that omicron is more transmissible and there are elements that confirm that despite being vaccinated contagion is still possible.”

In Andalusia, the Covid pass is required to enter hospitality establishments, nightlife venues and nursing homes. This measure will expire on January 31, but according to sources from the health department, the regional government is not planning to request court authorization to extend its use past this date. The final decision, however, will depend on the epidemiological situation.

For the other Spanish regions with coronavirus restrictions in force, no changes have been announced, but many of the measures that are currently in place will expire soon if not extended. In Asturias, for example, the closure of nightlife venues is set to end on January 27. In the Basque Country, all restrictions – including the limits on capacity and opening hours on non-essential activities – are valid until January 28. And in Navarre, coronavirus measures such as the closure of restaurants, nightlife venues and shops between 1am and 6am, are valid until January 31.

The Canary Islands, meanwhile, has taken a different approach and opted to strengthen its restrictions. The use of the Covid pass, which was set to end on January 24, has been extended for another month, while the islands of Gran Canaria and La Palma have been moved to a higher alert level, which entails stricter measures on the hospitality sector and social gatherings.

Experts call for caution

As regions consider easing coronavirus restrictions, experts are calling for caution. “The strategy that we should be following is to do everything possible to mitigate the sixth wave sooner rather than later,” said Daniel López-Acuña, a former director of emergencies at the World Health Organization (WHO). “The limits on nightlife, the curfew, the reduced opening hours and promotion of remote working are going to help us and should be in place for all of January and part of February.”

Juan Antonio Sanz Salanova, the spokesperson of the Spanish Society of Preventive Medicine, Public Health and Health Management (Sempsph) agrees. “We are not in a position to ease anything,” he said. “The trend is starting to change, but if we reduce the few measures we have, we risk seeing the epidemic surge again.”

Salvador Peiró, an epidemiologist from the Fisabio Foundation research institute in Valencia, says that a half-way point needs to be found. “We are not facing a flu nor is [the situation what it was] last winter. We can neither let positive cases stop isolating nor lock everyone away. We have to find a happy medium.”

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