Spain tops 3 million COVID-19 cases, extends Portuguese border controls until March

MADRID (Reuters) – Spain on Tuesday passed 3 million coronavirus cases since the start of the pandemic and extended controls along its 1,200-km (750-mile) border with Portugal until March 1, as both countries strive to rein in a third wave of infections.

FILE PHOTO: A health worker wearing full individual protection gear works beside a meal cart in front of a picture of the Escorial Palace, as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak continues, at Enfermera Isabel Zendal new pandemic hospital in Madrid, Spain, February 4, 2021. REUTERS/Sergio Perez

The border has been closed since Jan. 28 for non-essential travel, with exceptions for cross-border commuters, health workers and truck drivers.

A surge in infections after Christmas left Portugal’s hospitals on the verge of collapse, prompting a nationwide lockdown. Daily cases and deaths have fallen significantly in the past week, but hospitalisations and the number of patients in intensive care remain high..

Spain’s third wave is also ebbing, with the 14-day infection rate falling to 630 per 100,000 people on Tuesday, compared to around 900 in late January.

The death toll still jumped by 766, the highest daily rise since April, to 63,061 as the health ministry reported 16,402 new cases, taking the total since the start of the pandemic to 3.01 million.

Wary of new variants driving a resurgence, the government extended restrictions on air travel with Britain, South Africa and Brazil until March 2 to minimise imports of strains from those countries.

Health Minister Carolina Darias said the number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care should peak by the end of this week. The average occupancy of intensive care units is 43%.

Despite the stress on the health service, a court in the Basque region suspended a regional order shutting bars and restaurants in areas with more than 500 cases per 100,000 people.

The court accepted hospitality associations’ argument that closures would cause serious economic damage, and said there was no evidence linking them to a surge in cases after Christmas.

Restrictions in Spain vary by region. Madrid has some of the loosest rules – a fact that has attracted droves of French tourists eager to escape their own lockdown to enjoy the city’s relatively bustling night life.

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