The end of mandatory masks indoors in Spain will come "very soon", the country’s prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, has reiterated in recent weeks, but the exact date on which the decision will be made has opened an unexpected confrontation between the autonomous regions.
The Ministry of Health and the regional representatives will meet this Thursday in Zaragoza and the Minister Carolina Darias had set herself the goal of discussing the first few steps in a new stage in the management of Covid-19, and the controversial process of treating it like flu (basically, not controlling all infections, but serious cases of hospitalisation). But the discussion about masks threatens to overshadow the debate.
As has happened on many occasions during the pandemic, the Madrid region champions the most permissive initiative and Isabel Díaz Ayuso will propose to the rest of the regions the abolition of the use of the mask in all inside spaces, except in residences, hospitals and on public transport. And not only that: Madrid will also ask to eliminate the isolation for asymptomatic patients (except for vulnerable people in residences and hospitals) and limit coronavirus diagnostic tests, which will remain in the hands of professionals. "We are, quite likely, facing the end of the pandemic," says the Director General of Public Health of Madrid, Elena Andradas.
With less force, but in a similar sense, the president of the Andalusian Government, Juanma Moreno, spoke on Wednesday, calling for a "gradual and responsible" removal of the mask, although "always following the criteria of the experts."
Ayuso’s proposal basically coincides with the approach of the national Ministry of Health, but not with the approach of other regions. The most vocal has been Extremadura, which criticised the "sensationalist" regions that intend to ditch the masks "without the consensus of the Interterritorial Health Council." The spokesman for the Junta de Extremadura, Juan Antonio González, said that this "is not a question of who says it first", but rather "a more serious matter, which must be based on consensus and science".
"Some communities, in the interterritorial council meetings, make announcements with great fanfare, but we do not make announcements with great fanfare, we ask for the consensus of all regions, out of respect for that body where we all speak," said González.
The Basque Country is also against the immediate end of the masks. "First we must know the opinion of the experts, then discuss and decide and finally communicate it," said the Minister of Health, Gotzone Sagardui. But her criticism is not directed only at the regions in favour of an express withdrawal, but at the central government, which she accuses of "confusing" the public with its messages.
At the end of last year, before the Omicron variant explosion, the Ministry of Health considered the beginning of spring (21 March) as the right time to eliminate masks indoors. Now the discussion is more focused on whether it will be before or after Holy Week, between April 10 and 17.
Everything changed with Omicron. The new variant left very high incidence rates, of up to 3,400 infections per 100,000 inhabitants at the end of January, and although there has been a notable decrease since then, the fall has slowed down in recent days, and Spain is still not below the 400 rate. Other European countries, with much higher incidences, have already eliminated the mask obligation, but Spain does not seem willing to do so yet.
The most likely option, which Catalonia will propose at the Zaragoza meeting, is to start the de-escalation of the mask in schools, check if the incidence does not rocket and from there, gradually remove it in closed spaces.
An investigation by the Computational Biology and Complex Systems group of the Polytechnic University of Catalonia (UPC), presented on Tuesday, showed that the mask has not been a decisive tool to contain the virus in schools.