Pedro Sánchez will convene a monographic, extraordinary Council of Ministers this Thursday, writes José Marcos in El Pais, to agree, among other measures, the mandatory use of masks outdoors. The decision has been requested by several autonomous regional communities around Spain and so the Government has decided to approve the measure by decree law before Christmas Eve.

 

 

The presidents of Andalusia, Castilla-La Mancha, the Valencian Community, Galicia and the Basque Country have all announced that this would be one of their main requests at the presidents’ conference this Wednesday –  outdoor mask use was made no longer mandatory from June 26 of this year.

The Prime Minister defended the Government’s vaccination strategy as the most effective measure we have to stop the sixth wave: Sánchez insisted on “intensifying” coverage among the population, with a third booster dose.

He emphasised that the measure is proving to be very effective against Omicron, helping to reduce the number of hospital admissions.

The Executive, at The Moncloa in Madrid, plan also to reinforce regional vaccination teams, as well as trace and trackers, by deploying members of the Armed Forces to work where they are most needed.  Hospitals within the military health network will also be made available.

The Council of Ministers are also, this Thursday, expected to reinforce healthcare human resources: Autonomous Regional Communities will be legally empowered to hire both fully retired and early-retired personnel to assist at public and private healthcare centres, as well as specialists from States outside the EU.

Thursday’s extraordinary meeting has been called in the middle of this latest wave of infections, caused by the omicron variant,  that has, in just a few weeks, started to threaten to saturate Spain’s healthcare system, on the eve of the seasonal holidays, a particularly symbolic moment marked by family gatherings and mass consumption.

Among the newly proposed regulations will be an agreement that fully vaccinated people who have had direct contact with an infected individual will no longer need quarantine.

The Government plan to issue a temporary authorisation to allow the sale of certain professional-level antigen tests within normal pharmacies, so that they are available to the entire population.

The Spanish Central Government’s vaccination acceleration plan will now establish the following objectives:

  • 80% of the population between 60 and 69 years of age to be boosted with a third dose before the end of the year;
  • 80% of 50-59 year olds by the week of January 24;
  • 80% of those aged 40-49 by the first week of March.
  • In addition, 70% of children between 5 and 11 years of age will have had their first paediatric dose by the week of February 7.
  • And 70% of children should have already received a second paediatric dose by the week of April 19.

Most territories are reluctant to regain tougher restrictions, like limited capacity and reduced business hours. At each side of the divide are Madrid, whose regional president Isabel Díaz Ayuso is “opposed to mass closures”, and the Catalan regional president, Pere Aragonès, who is in favour of implementing a curfew and closing all nightlife to slow the further expansion of coronavirus.

The Government trusts that some measures can be agreed upon while appealing for prudence and calm.

Vaccination is the main strategy: 91.8% of the target population (38.6 million) have already been immunised.

La Moncloa emphasises that the most vulnerable have also already received a third booster dose: coverage in those over 70 years of age is at 84.2% but that among those aged 60 to 69 the percentage falls to 61.1%.

54.5% of the two million vaccinated with the Janssen single-dose have already received a second jab with Pfizer or Moderna.

Sánchez said, according to sources at the meeting, the Ómicron variant is best defended against with an extra dose, and insisted on boosters as an important protection measure.

From February 1, 2022, the Covid Green Digital Certificate, will uniformly validate vaccinations for 9 months from most recent dose. Spain’s regional communities, except Asturias, Extremadura, Castilla-La Mancha, Castilla y León and Madrid stipulate differing time periods for the covid certificate’s validity in restaurants, nightlife and even for hospital visits.

Summit of Regional Presidents

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez this Wednesday presided, from the Senate, over a videoconference Summit of Regional Presidents, accompanied by Isabel Rodríguez, Minister for Territorial Policy; María Jesús Montero, Minister of Finance; and Health Minister, Carolina Darias. 

The 18th such meeting of presidents since the start of the pandemic in March 2020 (there have only ever been 7 others since the very first in 2004), now just two days before Christmas Eve, allowed space for a full debate with all Regional Administrations on the advisability of applying particular restrictive measures to try and curb the spread of the coronavirus throughout Spain. On Tuesday the highest daily number of infections so far was recorded, with 49,823 new cases in a 24 hour period. 

This Wednesday daily recorded new infections rose to more than 60,000.

Ómicron, unknown just a month and a half ago, has demonstrated, in record time, an unusual level of transmissibility, although it seems to cause milder symptoms than the previously dominant variants of coronavirus.

Sánchez recalled during his initial presentation, behind closed doors, that the number of those being admitted to intensive care units are relatively much lower than a year ago. At the end of last January, as the third wave reached its peak, with a 14-day Accumulated Incidence of 900 cases per hundred thousand population, the number of hospitalised patients had shot up to total 30,789, of which 4,515 were in ICUs due to their severity.

But it is precisely this variant’s ability to expand exponentially which has triggered alarms, since it could overwhelm Spain’s already overstressed healthcare system, working at its limits, dealing with what is now six waves of Covid-19.

The numbers have tripled in a month, although the government and regional communities offer assurances that the situation is under control and should not be compared to other waves.

For example: last Friday there were 6,667 hospitalised patients in hospital, which was equivalent to 5.3% bed occupancy, and the latest data from the Ministry of Health brings that figure to 7,634 (6.14%).

In turn, the numbers of patients admitted into the ICUs over the last 5 days have also seen an increase, going from 1,306 (14% of intensive care places occupied by Covid patients) up to 1,472 (15.77%) this Tuesday, with a 14-day Accumulated Incidence in Spain (695.38 cases per 100,000 population) almost quadruple the number it was on December 1 (217/100k).  

This Wednesday Spain’s 14-day Accumulated Incidence rose again to 784/100k

New measures expected on Thursday in Spain

Sources point to new measures expected this Thursday, as well as making masks mandatory outdoors, other measures expected to be part of a royal decree law, to be agreed by the Central Government’s Council of Ministers, at an extraordinary meeting this Thursday, include an increased deployment of military trackers, intensification of the vaccination process to be accelerated, and professional antigen tests are be sold in pharmacies so that ordinary citizens can acquire them for greater accuracy.

The Government of Spain plans to give the green light, this Thursday, to a package of new measures against Covid-19, all while in the middle of trying to predict the trajectory of this sixth wave, and a day before Christmas Eve.

Sanchez and his Government have been reproached by some for being slow to act in the face of runaway increases in daily infections throughout Spain.

This Wednesday the Prime Minister announced a catalogue of initiatives at the start of the XXV Conference of Presidents, speaking from the Senate. The re-implementing of masks outdoors will likely be the biggest headline on Thursday, but it is a measure specifically requested by several regional leaders over recent days, though it has been questioned by some experts, and others, due to the majority of infections occurring in enclosed, poorly ventilated interiors.

Sánchez has announced that the decree law to be approved by the Council of Ministers this Thursday will include reinforcement of Armed Forces deployments with vaccination equipment, and the opening of military hospitals to be made available to regional communities in the weeks ahead.