Spain to extend state of alarm, UK urges furloughed workers to pick fruit

Madrid, May 19 (efe-epa).- Spain’s Socialist Party-led government on Tuesday landed an agreement with a center-right opposition party to extend the state of alarm in the country, which underpins the nationwide lockdown, by another two weeks.

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez had initially sought to extend the extraordinary period by a month, an initiative that had further stoked already fierce opposition from his main rivals, the conservative Popular Party.

Juggling a minority in Parliament, where Sánchez heads a coalition with left-wing Unidas Podemos, the prime minister compromised on the time period in order to guarantee the backing of Ciudadanos, a business-friendly outfit.

The state of alarm, which was first triggered on 14 March and grants the government the power to restrict the movement of citizens across the country, will now be in force until at least 7 June.

Spain’s government said it would consult with Ciudadanos on the possibilities of handling the health crisis without a state of alarm.

However, speaking at a press briefing later in the day, government spokesperson María Jesús Montero said: “We can’t rule out that we will ask for another 15-day extension.”

She said the instrument would allow the government to control its four-phase de-escalation of the lockdown, one of the world’s most draconian.

Around 70 percent of Spaniards have entered phase one of the government’s so-called “transition to a new normality,” but the regions of Madrid and Barcelona, — the worst-affected in the crisis — as well as some areas of Castile and Leon, remain in the preparatory phase 0.

Salvador Illa, the health minister, on Tuesday said that the government would make face masks obligatory in enclosed public spaces and in streets where a social-distance of two meters is impossible to maintain.

The protective equipment was already obligatory on public transport.

Spain’s daily death toll and infection rate was on a general downward trajectory with fewer than 100 fatalities on average every 24 hour period in recent days.

Fernando Simón, the head of Spain’s public health emergency department, said there had been 83 deaths in the last 24 hours, a slight uptick from the 59 registered Monday, bringing the total number of fatalities since the outbreak began to 27,778.

There were a further 295 new infections registered in the same period.

The number of daily deaths in the United Kingdom hit 545 in all settings between Monday and Tuesday, environment secretary George Eustice told the daily briefing.

It was a marked increase on the 170 and 160 recorded on Sunday and Monday respectively and brings the total toll since the pandemic began to 35,796, making the UK Europe’s worst-hit nation in terms of fatalities.

Angela McLean, the defense ministry’s chief scientific adviser, said the daily death toll had nonetheless decreased over the last month.

Eustice added the country was in a position to move one stage down the government’s five-stage alert system, from level four to three, which would see some social distancing measures being eased.

He said the country faced a shortage of fruit and vegetable pickers this harvest season — the job is overwhelmingly carried out by migrant seasonal workers — and said the government was encouraging furloughed British workers to fill the vacancies.

According to the UK’s statistics office, some 11,600 Covid-related deaths in the UK took place in the country’s care homes, which has fueled criticism of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s handling of the crisis, which opposition parties say was too slow.

Johnson has also been criticised for trying to reopen the country too soon, with the pandemic still far from being contained.

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