UPDATE: How Spain is reacting to China’s Covid-19 spike

Following the end of China's zero-Covid policy and a surge in infections in the world's most populous country, the Spanish government has gone back on its initial plan to not introduce new travel restrictions.

Passengers walk through a departure terminal of the international airport in Beijing. Photo: Noel Celis / AFP

Since China dropped its strict zero-Covid policy three weeks ago after almost three years in place, the number of infections in the Asian superpower has spiked, with experts in the UK estimating 9,000 deaths per day as of December 30th.

The Chinese government has since allowed Chinese nationals to travel overseas, and countries around the world are concerned about the prospect of a new variant spreading and reigniting a pandemic many epidemiologists considered to be over.

Both Italy and the United States, along with Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, India and Malaysia, will now require negative Covid-19 tests for arrivals from China, and epidemiologists worry about the intensive travel period leading up to Chinese New Year in late January.

Spain’s Health Ministry on Thursday initially said it would not impose any restrictions on passengers arriving from China, only recommending that people travelling to or from the Asian country “be fully vaccinated and maintain precautionary measures” such as mask wearing and keeping a distance from others.

But within less than 24 hours, Spanish authorities have changed their stance. Health Minister Carolina Darias on Friday December 30th said it would necessary for those travelling to Spain from China to either be fully vaccinated or show a negative Covid-19 test result to enter the country.

The restriction isn’t in force yet, but it is expected to begin on or before January 8th, which is when quarantine for arrivals in China will be lifted and a huge increase in travel among Chinese nationals is forecast.

Following an emergency meeting of the EU’s Health Security Committee on Thursday, which brings together health representatives from across the EU, member states agreed to maintain “active surveillance” of the surge in infections in China, and to explore possible joint-responses, something already demanded by the Italians.

In the words of European Commission spokesperson Daniel Ferrie, a “coordinated approach” is not off the table.

According to reports in the Spanish press, Spain’s Ministry of Health “stressed the importance of continuing the path of European coordination in health policies”, but Darias stressed that Spain’s restriction on travellers from China was “anticipating” what would happen across the bloc.

Spain’s Minister of Science, Diana Morant, said in an interview with Telecinco on Thursday that coordination is key. “One of the lessons of the pandemic is that it is better not to rush and take unilateral action, because it is not much use closing our airspace when the surrounding airspace is still open,” she said.

“It is true that we are looking at China,” she added, “but we are in constant contact with the members of the EU and coordinating the policies to make or not the most appropriate decisions at the moment in which we live.”

The only Covid-19 travel restriction in place for all travellers heading to or in Spain currently is the requirement of wearing a face mask on planes and other means of public transport, but not inside airports or other transport hubs.

Madrid’s Health Minister Enrique Ruiz Escudero on Thursday urged a more proactive approach in a letter sent to the Health Ministry, arguing that it is necessary to “evaluate public health measures… [and] intensify again controls at Spanish airports.”

He also urged Minister of Health Carolina Darias to “call an extraordinary plenary session of the Interterritorial Council of the National Health System (SNS) to address the current situation and the possible measures to be adopted”.

Murky data

In justifying the reintroduction of a required negative test, the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention has pointed to both undeniable increase in infections and the lack of transparent data from China in terms of cases and deaths, as well as the the genomic sequence of strains.

This lack of transparency and doubt cast on Chinese figures has also been echoed by President of the Spanish Epidemiology Society, Óscar Zurriaga, who told Spanish outlet 20 minutos that “it cannot be ruled out at all” that transmissions in China could cause a new variant to emerge.

The situation in China “should worry us all because the information we have is very limited,” he said. “At the beginning of the pandemic Chinese science made a huge effort to share data and we obtained PCR [tests] in a very short time thanks to them, [but] now the Chinese authorities are not responding with the same transparency.”

For now, Spain waits and stays in constant contact with its European neighbours.

This comes a time when several countries, including Italy, are reporting that half of the passengers arriving from China are infected.

France and the United Kingdom have for now said they will not reintroduce Covid travel restrictions.

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Spain announces end of public transport face mask rule

Spain's Health Minister has announced that in the coming days masks will no longer be mandatory on planes, buses, trains, taxis and other means of public transport.

Spain announces end of public transport face mask rule

Spanish Health Minister Carolina Darias on Thursday confirmed that face masks would no longer be compulsory on public transport, a measure which has been in place in Spain for almost three years. 

“I will raise the proposal of eliminating the mandatory use of masks on public transport”, she said, adding that next week she will convene with the Interterritorial Council of the National Health System to “put this measure into effect”.  

Darias did not specify exactly when this would happen, although government agreements are usually approved the following day in the Official State Gazette (BOE), so the official end to the mask rule looks set to be on February 8th.

The minister did clarify however that masks would still be mandatory in health settings such as health centres and hospitals “as health experts advise”. 

Last week, Darias reported the possibility of eliminating the mandatory mask rule in pharmacies, but this is currently being “weighed up” by health experts.  

Manuel Franco, an expert in Public Health and a member of the Spanish Society of Public Health and Sanitary Administration (Sespas) explained that “the World Health Organisation (WHO) is already considering the decision to lift the public health emergency warning for Covid-19” and adds that “if this goes ahead, it would make no sense to maintain the mask rule”.  

The use of masks ceased to be mandatory outdoors almost a year ago, on February 10th, 2022.

Then, two months later on April 20th, the government announced they wouldn’t be required indoors either, except in health centres and on public transport. 

The latest bulletin of Sentinel Surveillance of Acute Respiratory Infection in Primary Care (ARIs) and in Hospitals (SARI), announced a drop in infections and hospitalisations and said that the rates for Covid-19 remain stable.

The decision to end the mask rule in February comes after health experts who advise the Spanish Ministry of Health said that masks should no longer be required on public transport

On Wednesday, January 25th the director of the Health Alerts and Emergencies Coordination Centre of the Ministry of Health (CCAES), Fernando Simón, assured that the end of the mask rule on transport would be announced “shortly” either “next week or the following”.  

Then, on Thursday morning, government spokesperson, Isabel Rodríguez, stated that the decision to remove the mask on public transport would be taken “immediately, when possible”, but pointed out that the government was looking at the situation in China first.