By Jordi Rubio and Emma Pinedo
BARCELONA/MADRID (Reuters) – Spain is flattening the curve on the spread of the coronavirus, the government said on Tuesday, one month into a strict lockdown in one of the world’s worst outbreaks, but some voiced alarm over the loosening of restrictions that began this week.
In an attempt to mitigate the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, national authorities eased the terms of one of Europe’s most stringent lockdowns to allow some sectors like construction and manufacturing to resume work on Monday.
But the government insisted on Tuesday the restrictions – under a state of emergency – which ban all but essential outings remain in place, as shops, bars and public spaces will stay closed until at least April 26.
“We are in a confinement period, it looks like (some) have forgotten,” said interior minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska at a press briefing. “We still have a long way … (but) we are on the right track to defeat the virus.”
In Catalonia, with the second highest number of COVID-19 deaths after the capital Madrid, police stopped motorists in Barcelona to check documents specifying the reason for their journey. Workers must show certificates from their employers.
“I still find it quite hasty, this return (to work) – I see too many people today,” hospital employee Monica Pinzon said at a Barcelona metro station where health staff distributed masks to commuters.
Spain has over 170,000 documented cases and more than 18,000 deaths. The overnight death rate has dropped well below peak levels reached in early April, but nevertheless inched up again on Tuesday.
A lockdown banning residents from leaving home for all but the most essential activities has been credited with slowing the rate of deaths but come at a heavy cost, with around 900,000 jobs lost in the last two weeks of March alone.
For Roberto Aguayo, a 50-year-old Barcelona construction worker, the restart of his sector came just in time. “We really needed it. Just when we were going to run out of food, we returned to work,” he said.
The health ministry reported on Tuesday the lowest increase in new cases – 3,045 – since March 18. The number of overnight deaths rose slightly to 567.
Unlike other countries in Europe, Spaniards are not allowed out of their houses for exercise and can only leave for essential activities like buying food. Children have been cooped up at home for a month. Authorities are investigating whether Spain’s former prime minister Mariano Rajoy – who left office in 2018 – broke the restrictions after La Sexta TV footage showed him apparently exercising on the street, the interior minister said.
If the breach is confirmed, the legal norms would be applied, Grande-Marlaska said.
The economic toll of the crisis will be huge. The International Monetary Fund forecasts an 8% economic slump this year in Spain, to be followed by a recovery in 2021.
Asked about that forecast, European Central Bank vice-president Luis de Guindos told Spain’s Antena 3 TV channel the economic recovery would depend on the evolution of the pandemic, but added “no one should underestimate the growth capacity of the Spanish economy.”
Millions are turning to the government for relief.
On Tuesday, the Spanish government approved a one-month tax moratorium for the self-employed and small companies which it said would allow them to boost their short-term liquidity by around 3.6 billion euros ($3.95 billion).
Meanwhile, social security has registered nearly a million requests from self-employed people for pay-outs under the terms of a state relief package announced last month, government spokeswoman Maria Jesus Montero said.
(Additional reporting by Nathan Allen, Clara-Laeila Laudette, Belen Carreno, Jesus Aguado, Isla Binnie and Joan Faus; Writing by Andrei Khalip, Emma Pinedo and Joan Faus; Editing by Sonya Dowsett, Mark Heinrich and Mark Potter)