By Emma Pinedo and Belén Carreño
MADRID (Reuters) – Spain will allow children to go outside for walks from next weekend in a loosening of the country’s strict coronavirus lockdown, Health Minister Salvador Illa said late on Tuesday, amid mounting criticism that the government’s restrictions unfairly penalise the very young.
The change came hours after the government first announced that young children, who are currently banned from leaving home under any circumstances, would be allowed to accompany their parents on essential trips such as to buy food or medicine.
That sparked fierce criticism on social media and widespread calls to let children outside to play. Across Madrid people banged on pots and pans from their balconies in protest.
“This is a government that listens and next weekend I will issue an order allowing children under 14 to take walks from Sunday, April 26th,” Illa told a news conference. The Health Ministry will announce details on when and where children can walk in the coming days, he said.
Despite allowing some businesses to reopen last week, Spain remains under one of Europe’s strictest lockdowns with millions cooped up at home and not even allowed out for exercise.
A falling infection rate has prompted optimism among officials, but Illa said the country is not yet ready for any broad easing of confinement measures.
The latest 24-hour tallies took fatalities to 21,282 and infections to 204,178, an increase of just 2%. Monday’s 399 deaths represented the lowest daily number since March 22.
Countries around the world are considering or taking steps to ease lockdowns, though the World Health Organization is warning this should be done slowly and only when there is capacity to isolate infection cases and trace contacts.
BULL FESTIVAL SUSPENDED
The pandemic has wrought severe economic damage in Spain, with hundreds of thousands of jobs lost and newly released data showing a real-estate market teetering already in February, before infections ballooned.
In the latest gloomy forecast, the research unit of Spanish bank BBVA said it expected the economy to contract 8% in 2020 before recovering 5.7% next year, under the assumption the lockdown will end in late May.
To soften the economic blow, the cabinet approved several measures including an extension of unemployment benefits and modifications to the tax code which should free up 1.1 billion euros ($1.2 billion) in liquidity to support small businesses and the self-employed.
Unemployment has risen about 5% so far in April, Labour Minister Yolanda Diaz said. That is a gentler increase than in March when some 900,000 people lost their jobs in the last two weeks of the month.
Some 4 million people have been furloughed under temporary layoff programmes since the outbreak began. Still, the services and agricultural sectors recorded a modest net creation of jobs in mid-April, Diaz said.
The government has encouraged locals to work in the fields harvesting crops, as border closures mean farmers lack seasonal migrant labourers to gather produce.
Meanwhile, sausage skin maker Viscofan said it would pay a bonus of 1,000 euros to staff working during the epidemic.
In the latest hit to Spain’s crucial tourist industry, authorities in the northern city of Pamplona called off the annual San Fermin bull-running festival, which draws thousands every year. It was the first time the week-long party had been fully suspended since 1978, during Spain’s turbulent transition to democracy after the dictatorship of Francisco Franco.
On a positive note, Equality Minister Irene Montero rejoined other ministers in a video-link cabinet meeting after recovering from the coronavirus. Her participation in March 8 Women’s Day rallies, alongside other government members who later contracted the disease, had caused widespread criticism in Spain.
(Reporting by Emma Pinedo, Belen Carreno, Inti Landauro, Jesus Aguado, Clara-Laeila Laudette; Writing by Andrei Khalip and Nathan Allen; Editing by Clara-Laeila Laudette, Mark Heinrich and Leslie Adler)