"Soon", "very soon", "sooner rather than later" are the phrases regularly repeated by Government ministers in Spain whe
n they are asked when the requirement to wear coronavirus masks indoors will end.
"There is one day less", is what Spain’s Minister of Health, Carolina Darias, said on Friday when she was asked by journalists when the mandatory requirement would finally end.
On 21 February, prime minister Pedro Sánchez spoke for the first time about the withdrawal of the last restriction of the pandemic in Spain, but almost a month and a half later, the worsening of the epidemiological situation has slowed down the plans of the Government, who dreamed of a spring or at the latest, an Easter week, without this protection element in closed places. The deadlines, now, are up in the air, but the pressure is increasing, from the opposition parties and from some region, to end the masks indoors obligation.
If Spain has been a pioneer in the way that the surveillance of Covid-19 will be treated like flu, the experts in the Ministry of Health seem to opt for extreme prudence in regard to indoors masks.
In principle, the Interterritorial Health Council meeting this Wednesday, which will be held in Toledo, is not going to debate the measure, although a change in the agenda of the meeting is not ruled out and several regions have already warned that they will demand that Ministry of Health take this decision now.
But Darias' department manages its own calendar and has a date marked in red: 12 April, Holy Tuesday. That date will be two weeks since the start of the new Covid monitoring will have started and the effects of the new surveillance system will begin to be seen on hospitalisations, the indicator that since last Monday leads the decisions of the Ministry. The Alerts Committee also plans to prepare a document on the country's epidemiological situation for that date. If the conclusions are positive, the decision could be made quickly, although for now, the updates published by Health, which are less and less exhaustive, do not offer excessive reasons for optimism.
In last Tuesday's report, the last complete one of the pandemic, the cumulative incidence rate rose to 466.51 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, nine times more than the 50 cases that the Government considers as a marker of the new ‘normal’
In Friday's update, the incidence in people over 60 years of age (the only one that is going to be measured now) stood at 459.27 cases and although some markers, such as the seven-day incidence rate , point to a drop, this decrease it won't be fast enough to get to Easter at low-risk levels. In contrast, the situation in hospitals is good, with only 3.34% of ward beds and 4.62% of intensive care unit beds occupied by Covid-19 patients.
From the political side, the government is under increasing pressure. Congress approved on Thursday a motion that urges the Government to abolish the mandatory use of masks indoors, on the condition that the measure has the endorsement of the scientific community and the health authorities. In the regions the debate on masks continues to cause a deep division.
And all this is happening while public health experts call for caution. "There is no need to set a date on the end of indoor masks, we must analyse the data, and what we have, right now, tells us that the incidence among the most vulnerable, those over 80 years of age, is rising," says Joan Carles March, professor at the Andalusian School of Public Health. In addition, March explains that Spain must prepare in other ways to remove masks indoors, inlcuding "extending the use of CO2 meters and HEPA filters."