WHO advises Spain not to relax coronavirus restrictions too soon

Senior emergency officer notes that a relative decrease in incidence is not the same as low transmission

A bar in Toledo, where a new QR code system will go into effect allowing food and drink venues to reopen.
A bar in Toledo, where a new QR code system will go into effect allowing food and drink venues to reopen.ISMAEL HERRERO / EFE

While several Spanish regions ponder whether to start easing coronavirus measures due to a recent drop in infections, experts at the World Health Organization (WHO) on Thursday warned against lifting restrictions too soon.

During an update on the Covid-19 situation in Europe, senior emergency officer Catherine Smallwood insisted on the importance of bringing transmission down, warning that the longer the virus is in circulation, the better it could adapt to humans and develop new mutations.

“A relative decrease does not mean transmission rates are low. In Spain we’ve seen a very significant relative decrease, but transmission rates remain very, very high, and the more the virus is among us, the quicker it’s going to be a step ahead of us. So in that sense we really do need to be careful,” said Smallwood, replying to a question from a reporter from the Catalan News Agency.

In Spain, the 14-day incidence rate is 584 per 100,000 people, down from a peak of 900 in late January but more than twice the threshold considered an extreme-risk scenario. In the Valencia region, the rate is currently 879 per 100,000.

“I think the risks of opening too soon have been made clear in several countries and across Europe after the summer holidays, when we saw a relaxation of measures and quick movement back to business as usual and a false sense of security,” added the WHO expert. “That was quickly corrected by a significant resurgence of cases in the autumn that presented very big challenges to many countries.

This virus will take advantage of any chance we give it to rapidly spread, and it will spread much more rapidly than we think; the curve will go up very steeply and will come down pretty much slowly, and every time we lift a restriction, every time we open part of our society, it will shift the balance in favor of the virus.”

Basque reopening

In the Basque Country, a recent decision by a judge to allow bars and restaurants to reopen provisionally despite a closure order by the regional government has turned into a public wrangle involving epidemiologists, policitians and the legal profession.

The Basque government’s legal services are considering whether to request the recusal of judge Luis Ángel Garrido of the regional High Court, on the basis that he may lack the necessary impartiality to oversee a case brought by Basque restaurateurs challenging their closure.

In his decision granting provisional authorization to reopen while the case makes its way through the courts, Garrido said that there was no evidence that bars and restaurants pose a clear threat as spreaders of the coronavirus. A day earlier, he had made statements to the effect that epidemiologists are “family doctors who have taken a course” and held that their advice brings “very little added value.”

“Telling us that to reduce the virus we need to stay home, not talk to anyone, not go to the theater...people already knew this back in the Middle Ages, and even earlier in the Arab countries,” he said in a radio talk show. The government of Iñigo Urkullu has been very critical of the judge’s decision to let establishments reopen, and may appeal the move.

Meanwhile, the food and drink industry is planning to file hundreds of complaints with government agencies over the losses they have been enduring due to prolonged closures. The main industry association, Hostelería España, and the group La Hostelería de Todos said there are around 1,000 members who may want to seek compensation.

Cristina Llop, a lawyer at the firm Ecija, said that other sectors such as hotels, gyms and entertainment venues could do the same. The requests will be filed with the relevant government department, and if the request is denied or ignored, the claimants may turn to the Supreme Court, which Llop said is the most likely scenario.

QR codes

Starting on Friday, residents of the region of Castilla-La Mancha may go back to bars and restaurants after a 26-day closure. But to do so, they will need to show a QR code on their cellphones to ensure that they can be contacted in the event that an outbreak is detected at the venue.

Information on how to obtain the code will be released at noon on Friday, said a regional government spokesperson. The region, which includes the city of Toledo, is home to two million people.

Contact tracing apps, which have been used successfully in some Asian countries to control the pandemic, have met with little success in Spain. An app named Radar Covid has failed to become a useful tool against the pandemic.


The Ministry of Consumer Affairs will introduce tougher conditions on the sale of hygienic facemasks. The only ones allowed to go on sale will be those tested by accredited labs, and there will be new labeling requirements. For the first time, there will be rules regarding facemasks with a see-through area allowing the mouth to be seen.

English version by Susana Urra.

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