Spain to begin limited loosening of coronavirus lockdown

Pedro Sánchez has pleaded with Spain’s citizens to take maximum precautions when the country’s harsh coronavirus lockdown is relaxed on Monday, as political and economic tensions increase over his government’s plans to loosen controls.

In an address to the nation on Saturday, the prime minister called for “total caution and prudence” from those living in the regions where the lockdown will be loosened, adding that people should “take precautions as if they were infected”.

The government says 51 per cent of Spaniards will begin the so-called “phase one” of the transition from the lockdown on Monday, when restaurants and bars can serve clients outdoors, shops selling non-essential items can open without appointment and private gatherings of 10 people or fewer can be held.

Badly hit areas such as Madrid and Barcelona will have to wait at least another week for such steps.

Spain, one of the countries that has been worst affected by the coronavirus pandemic, hopes to phase out lockdown for the whole country by late June or mid-July.

“A little over half the Spanish population will be able to get some more of their lives back,” Mr Sánchez said.

But he added: “The fight goes on and it will not be over until there is a vaccine. In the meantime, we will have to live with the virus and so have to strengthen healthcare and make sure of our capabilities.”

Although Mr Sánchez praised Spain’s discipline in following the lockdown to date, people in some instances have poured into the streets in response to previous limited relaxations of the rules — such as the lifting last weekend of a ban on walks and outdoor exercise. Because not everyone wears a mask or practises social distancing, this has sparked fears of an uptick in Covid-19 despite Spain’s recent success in lowering infection.

In figures released on Saturday, the ministry of health said 179 people had died in the past 24-hour period after contracting coronavirus, one of the lowest daily totals since the lockdown was imposed in mid-March. The official death toll to date is 26,478, although this excludes cases where people were not tested for coronavirus and so omits many fatalities in care homes.

The number of people who have had positive results in relatively reliable PCR tests for the virus increased by just 0.27 per cent to 223,578 — far below daily rates of increase of around 35 per cent in March.

In absolute terms, the biggest number of new cases is in Catalonia — 202 in the past 24 hours.

Mr Sánchez said the government’s ruling on which areas to move to phase one was made by health professionals based on known and agreed criteria.

The decision on Madrid, which has suffered more documented coronavirus deaths than any other part of Spain and is ruled by the prime minister’s political opponents on the centre right, has been particularly contentious.

The region asked last week to begin phase one of the loosening — a decision that provoked the resignation of Yolanda Fuentes, Madrid’s director-general of public health, who considered the capital not yet ready.

Pablo Iglesias, Spain’s radical left deputy prime minister, then attacked the region’s request to loosen the lockdown, saying it was “playing politics with something as serious as saving lives”. 

Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the head of the regional government, said the central administration had barely helped Madrid and that the region now needed “to take steps for jobs, because the [economic] situation could still become much worse”.

On Saturday, Mr Sánchez insisted that the central government “never wanted to politicise this health crisis”. However, less than a day before, his Socialist party had attacked the Madrid’s region’s government on Twitter as “an example of inefficient and irresponsible administration in the face of the Covid crisis”.

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