March 10, 2020 / 12:06 PM / 19 days ago

Spain steps up coronavirus measures to 'avoid Italian scenario'

MADRID (Reuters) - Spain said on Tuesday it would do “whatever is necessary” to try and stem a rising tide of coronavirus cases, shutting down schools in several regions, suspending flights from Italy and advising against all non-essential travel.

A man walks with two children following the Basque regional government's decision to close schools to control coronavirus, in Labastida, Spain, March 10, 2020. REUTERS/Vincent West

The number of confirmed cases increased threefold from Sunday and tenfold in a week, prompting Spain, which had so far taken few drastic steps, to change tack and announce a slew of measures.

The government banned indoor gatherings of more than 1,000 people in the most affected regions - Madrid, the Rioja wine-growing region and two areas in the northern Basque Country, while all La Liga football matches will be played behind closed doors for at least two weeks.

And the lower house of parliament decided to close down for at least a week after far-right Vox lawmaker Javier Ortega Smith was diagnosed with the virus, while banks and other companies across the country told staff to work from home.

“We are working on avoiding the Italian scenario,” Health Minister Salvador Illa told a news conference. “With these measures we believe that we can avoid it. And if we have to take additional measures, we will take them.”

Italy is the hardest-hit European country, with a nationwide lockdown, 10,149 cases and 631 deaths. The ban on flights from Italy will last at least two weeks.

Spain, the euro zone’s fourth-largest economy, has so far reported 36 deaths and 1,639 coronavirus cases, a sharp surge from the 589 cases recorded on Sunday.

Across the Madrid region, parents prepared for a two-week school shutdown starting there on Wednesday, which will affect some 1.53 million students, with tens of thousands more affected by school shutdowns in Rioja and in the Basque country.

WHATEVER IT TAKES

“We will do whatever is necessary, wherever it is necessary and whenever it is necessary, and together we will overcome this crisis,” Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez told a news conference.

Sanchez said the government planned to guarantee medicines and provide credit lines to small businesses hit by the outbreak.

The government is expected to unveil a package of measures at a cabinet meeting on Thursday. Steps could include credit lines for small- and medium-sized firms as well as measures to help parents cope with school shutdowns.

Amid worries over the impact of the virus on tourism in Spain, regional authorities postponed a festival that gathers huge crowds in Valencia, the UNESCO-recognized Las Fallas, in which papier-mâché dolls are brought into the streets and burned.

The Madrid city council announced that municipal facilities including sports centers and libraries would also be closed, while shelves in some supermarkets were left bare as buyers rushed to stock up on essentials like pasta, toilet paper and cooking oil.

“I did buy more stuff than usual obviously due to the coronavirus, mainly because of my children,” shopper Susana Arcalla told Reuters.

Meanwhile, the royal family canceled its program of official engagements for the next week and the national prison service restricted visiting rights in some facilities.

Santander and BBVA called on shareholders to participate remotely at their annual general meetings while a string of companies, including Mapfre, Naturgy and Telefonica introduced measures to let staff work from home.

It was not all downbeat news in Spain.

Slideshow (6 Images)

Guests waved and cheered as they left a hotel in Tenerife, in the sunny Canary Islands, where they spent two weeks in lockdown after several cases of coronavirus were detected there.

“In a way we’re a bit sad to go home because we’ve had a really, really nice time despite all of this,” British tourist Janet Betts said.

Reporting by Emma Pinedo, Belen Carreno, Michael Gore, Inti Landauro, Elena Rodriguez, Jose Elias Rodriguez and Jesus Aguado in Madrid, Vincent West in Labastida and Marco Trujillo in Tenerife; Writing by Ingrid Melander and Nathan Allen; Editing by Nick Macfie, Philippa Fletcher and Lisa Shumaker

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