Lifting the coronavirus quarantine restrictions and what comes next
Catalan authorities call for measured and "effective" return to normality based on expert advice as preparations begin for widespread covid-19 testing
When will the coronavirus quarantine restrictions be lifted and when will the public be allowed to go outside again? That is a question that many people around the country are no doubt asking themselves, and while there is no straight answer to the question, the debate on what to do after the worst of the crisis has passed has already begun.
Catalan vice president Pere Aragonès said on Monday that the lifting of the confinement should only begin after 14 days of a "sustained reduction" in the number of confirmed cases, the equivalent of the virus incubation period. He also said that the lifting of the restrictions should be gradual and be accompanied by widespread testing of the public.
His statements came a day after Catalan president Quim Torra called on Spain to maintain total home confinement of the public, saying that relaxing the restrictions without widespread testing of the population would be "reckless." Torra said his government wants the easing of the lockdown to be "coordinated," "well-planned" and "effective."
State of alarm to be extended
The Spanish government has said it will extend the state of alarm by another two weeks, until April 26. A state of alarm was declared across Spain on March 14 and extended for two weeks more on March 27. A new vote in congress to extend the emergency measures will pass, as the main opposition party has said it will support the government.
However, talking at the weekend, Spanish president Pedro Sánchez warned that fewer covid-19 cases will not mean the end of the crisis. Alluding to the possibility of further extensions, Sánchez said that "not everything will be over by the end of April" although he clarified that the "total stoppage" will not go on beyond Easter.
Yet, with few details released by the state authorities about how it will manage the return to normality, Catalan government spokeswoman Meritxell Budó demanded on Monday that the government in Madrid begin preparing a protocol for the "effective" lifting of the restrictions that is based on data and the recommendations of experts.
What the experts recommend
One such expert gave his opinion at the weekend. Top researcher Oriol Mitjà put forward a plan that foresees a gradual lifting of the confinement from April 13, beginning with young, healthy people and leaving the oldest members of society, the reopening of schools, and the holding of events with more than 50 people until last.
Mitjà and his colleague Joel López also advise carrying out widespread testing of the population to find out who has had the disease and to detect new cases. They rule out eliminating coronavirus completely in the short term and predict recurring outbreaks over the next few months, with perhaps 15% of the population immunized at the outset.
In fact, the Spanish government said on Monday that it will look into whether children could be allowed out of the home as part of the measures relaxing the restrictions it says it is considering. According to health minister Salvador Illa, any changes to the restrictions will be based on the evolution of the data and on "good sense."
Five million rapid tests, 180,000 for Catalonia
With general agreement on the need for widespread testing, Illa also said that the Spanish government had bought five million rapid covid-19 tests that it began distributing to different territories on Monday, with some 180,000 destined for Catalonia, which will above all be used in hospitals and elderly care homes.
The rapid tests have a diagnostic accuracy of over 80% in people who have been infected for over a week, and 64% in people with early symptoms. The tests will complement and not replace PCR (polymerase chain reaction) laboratory tests, and will be used "in rapid screenings in environments with a high prevalence of the disease."
As the authorities begin preparing for widespread testing, president Torra said his government will soon open up all research laboratories in Catalonia to start making more than 100,000 rapid covid-19 tests, and he added that the executive's plan to detect coronavirus cases was "just about ready."
Army begins setting up rapid testing facilities
Meanwhile, the Spanish armed forces said on Monday that they had begun setting up rapid testing facilities and have put up three large tents in Valladolid, while the state health ministry said it will prioritize early testing for coronavirus in people with mild and with serious symptoms, although it said it is still studying the strategy to follow.
And, as the de-escalation of the crisis begins, Spain's foreign minister Arancha González Laya warned that the public will most likely have to get used to wearing face masks "at least until" there is a vaccine, and she hinted that alongside the lifting of the confinement will come measures such as "social distancing" and "wearing face masks."