Spaniards took the first tentative steps back to work on Monday as lockdown restrictions were partially relaxed, despite experts counselling against easing restrictions.
The death toll in Spain resumed its downward trend on Monday after another 517 people died, with the overall number of fatalities nearly 17,500, government figures showed. The data showed that confirmed cases rose by 3,477 – the lowest daily figure since 20 March – to 169,496.
After the rate of the fatalities began to slow during the past two weeks, Spain’s left-wing government took the decision to partially relax tough lockdown conditions, allowing mainly construction and manufacturing workers to return to work after two weeks of economic hibernation.
In Spain, during the past fortnight only workers in essential sectors like health, police and the army have been permitted to go to work.
Restrictions remain in place for millions of Spaniards who can only leave their homes to buy food, seek medical assistance, for emergencies or to go to work.
In Italy, after a similar decline in the rate of deaths, confinement measures were being slightly eased by allowing a small number of shops to open, but the country will remain on lockdown at least until 3 May.
Pedro Sanchez, the Spanish prime minister, insisted the lockdown was still in force.
“We are not in a phase of de-escalation,” he said during a press conference on Sunday. “The state of emergency is still in force and so is the lockdown. The only thing that has come to an end is the two-week extreme economic hibernation period.”
He added: “General confinement will remain the rule for the next two weeks. The only people allowed out will be those going to authorised jobs or making authorised purchases.”
Police distributed millions of masks at train stations and on buses on Monday as main stations like Atocha in Madrid seemed quiet. Traffic on the roads was light.
Fernando Grande-Marlaska, the Spanish interior minister, said the health of those returning to work was a priority.
“The health of workers must be guaranteed. If this is minimally affected, the activity cannot restart,” he said during an interview with Cadena Ser radio station.
However, the World Health Organisation has cautioned that there could be a “deadly resurgence” of the virus if population restrictions were lifted too quickly.
Antoni Trilla, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Barcelona who advises the government on how to deal with the outbreak, said some experts had not been consulted before the decision was taken to partially relax confinement.
“It is logical to try to return to normalcy in all the economic activity but this must be accompanied by a good system to detect and treat the new systems that occur,” he added in a radio interview.
One of the most devolved countries in Europe, some of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions have challenged the resumption of work at non-essential businesses.
Quim Torra, the regional president of Catalonia, an important industrial region that accounts for nearly 20 per cent of Spanish GDP, said the return to work could provoke a “rise in infections and a situation of collapse for Catalonia’s health system”.
A government booklet has been issued with guidelines about staggering the times of work, recommended distances to maintain from other workers, and the temperatures to wash clothes.
Ibon Briz Iceta, deputy CEO at the engineering firm Ondozabal Group, near San Sebastian, admitted he was concerned about the risk of catching the virus when he returned to work.
“Of course I am a bit worried about the risk of getting the virus but the number of people who have had it here in San Sebastian has been very small in comparison to places like Madrid and Barcelona so that is reassuring. Only one person in the company has caught the virus,” he told The Independent.
“We are giving our workers masks and taking precautionary measures to ensure their health. There is a bit of a psychosis about catching it so we have taken extra measures to reassure them, getting 200 masks and security measures.”
The company of 100 workers makes parts for windmills and other machinery, and exports to Germany and other parts of Europe.
The firm is typical of the manufacturing companies in the Basque Country, one of Spain’s industrial heartlands.
Xabier Arambarri, owner of Delteco Group, one of the biggest machine tools companies in Spain, said he was relieved to be returning to work.
“This year has been catastrophic for us so I am very keen to get back to work,” he told The Independent.
“We are putting into place special measures to test all of our staff for the virus using a private clinic. We will know the results in the next 48 hours. So far we have only had one person from the company who has had the virus and he has made a full recovery.”
He added: “This virus has been very tough for Spain but hopefully the numbers are going down now.”
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