By Nathan Allen and Inti Landauro
MADRID (Reuters) – Spain’s government approved measures on Friday to prevent employers using the coronavirus outbreak as an excuse to fire staff after health officials said the rising death toll was stabilising.
Spain, which has recorded more coronavirus deaths than any other country except Italy, said the national death toll had increased overnight by 769 to 4,858, a rise of around 19%.
“In percentage terms, today’s increase is roughly equivalent to that of the past three days, in which we seem to see a clear stabilisation,” health emergency chief Fernando Simon told a news conference.
Businesses across Spain have been forced to close their doors because of the coronavirus, and two of the country’s largest unions have cautioned that as many as 1 million people could permanently lose their jobs.
Speaking after an extraordinary cabinet meeting, Labour Minister Yolanda Diaz said employers must use temporary layoff programs, known as ERTEs, rather than permanently fire staff. Dismissing staff under ‘just cause’ is now completely banned.
“I’m asking employers to set an example, to be responsible to their people and to conserve employment,” she said.
Referring to the respiratory illness that can be caused by the coronavirus, she said: “You can’t use COVID-19 to fire people.”
Despite the widespread disruption to business, government spokeswoman Maria Jesus Montero said food supply chains were functioning smoothly in the country of about 46 million, the European Union’s largest exporter of fruit and vegetables.
With the number of infections rising overnight to 64,059 from Thursday’s 56,188, Spain is struggling to cope. Real Madrid’s Bernabeu soccer stadium has been converted into a medical supply store, a fairground in Madrid has been turned into a mass testing area and a skating rink is now a morgue.
Patients continue to stream into Spanish hospitals, where staff face a shortage of protective gear such as masks.
In the Basque capital Vitoria, an early centre of the outbreak, a Reuters reporter witnessed the funeral of a coronavirus victim, one of the few occasions for which Spaniards are allowed to break the lockdown and leave their homes.
Undertakers in white overalls and masks lowered the casket while grieving family members stood back, keeping one metre (three foot) apart to minimise the risk of infection.
More than 9,400 health workers have tested positive for the virus, Simon said. That is about 15% of those infected in Spain.
Spain extended the lockdown on Thursday by a further 15 days to April 11 and said it was fighting a “real war” over medical supplies to contain the death toll. It is turning to China, where the coronavirus originated, for many critical products.
(Reporting by Sonya Dowsett, Inti Landauro, Nathan Allen, Clara-Laeila Laudette, Belén Carreño; Editing by Andrei Khalip and Timothy Heritage)