CORONAVIRUS

Spanish government asks citizens to stay home for Christmas

New plan allows inter-regional travel between December 23 and January 6 only to see family and close friends, but rules will be hard to enforce and some regions do not feel bound by them

Christmas lights in downtown Madrid on Wednesday.
Christmas lights in downtown Madrid on Wednesday.Samuel Sánchez

“We need to stay home for Christmas.” This is the Spanish government’s main message to citizens, as expressed on Wednesday by Health Ministery Salvador Illa after a meeting of central and regional officials that produced a plan for safely celebrating this holiday season.

Despite the appeal to avoid travel, the plan will allow movement across regional lines between December 23 and January 6, as long as these trips are made to visit relatives or close friends. Illa said that this definition includes not only direct family members but also people with whom “strong bonds of affection” exist. Outside of these exceptions, borders are to remain sealed according to the plan.

To prevent the spread of the virus, the best thing to do would be to eliminate gatherings altogether
Epidemiologist Javier del Águila

Social gatherings are capped at 10 people on key days (December 24, 25, and 31 and January 1) up from the regular limit of six. Additionally, a 1.30am curfew is set for the nights of Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, rather than the earlier times currently in place and which vary across the regions.

But it remains unclear how compliance with these rules will be enforced. On Wednesday, the minister called on citizens’ sense of responsibility to make sure that the guidelines are adhered to. But ultimately it will be up to each individual to determine which visits are justified. Similarly, the 10-person limit on social gatherings will be impossible to enforce.

The government has also failed to secure unanimous support for the plan. Although most regional representatives backed it, Madrid officials on Wednesday voted against it, saying through a spokesperson that they “do not feel bound by it.”

Catalonia also said that it does not feel bound by the agreement, although its own plan contains many similar measures. According to sources present at the talks, some other regional officials said they would go even further in their restrictions.

A state of alarm is currently in force in Spain, which according to the health minister means that the agreement that came out of the meeting of the Inter-Territorial Council of the National Health System on Wednesday is binding.

Sources who were present at the meeting reported Madrid officials as saying that unless the plan is published in the State Official Gazette (BOE), they will not follow it. Illa replied that such a step is not necessary and will not be taken.

The ministry had been hoping to secure unanimous support for the plan by incorporating some regional demands, such as raising the cap on social gatherings from six to 10 on key days (December 24, 25, and 31 and January 1), and pushing the curfew from 1am to 1.30am on the nights of Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve.

Risk of coronavirus outbreaks

Several epidemiologists consulted by this newspaper said that increased social contact during Christmas will likely lead to new outbreaks in January. Spain, which entered a second coronavirus wave after summer, has been flattening the infection curve following a series of restrictions on mobility that include sealed perimeters at the local, provincial and regional level in many parts of the country.

Experts say that the only way to prevent a new surge is to entirely avoid gatherings of people from different households. But they admit that it is not an easy thing to impose on a weary society that already experienced one of the world’s strictest coronavirus lockdowns between March and June.

“I am very glad that I don’t have to make that kind of decision,” said the epidemiologist Javier del Águila. “To prevent the spread of the virus, the best thing to do would be to eliminate gatherings altogether. It would mean following a tough line that we have not followed to date, but which Italy has done: canceling Christmas.”

Other experts criticize what they see as shortcomings in leadership and strategy. “I think it is necessary to be more explicit about the general goals that these measures seek to achieve,” said Ildefonso Hernández, spokesperson for the Spanish Society of Public Health. “For instance, what kind of risks are we trying to avoid with each measure, so that people will understand the point of restricting movement between the regions but not within one’s own region; or why there is a limit on household gatherings.”

With reporting by Isabel Valdés and Jessica Mouzo.

English version by Susana Urra.