Spanish regions toughen COVID-19 response, Madrid blames UK strain
MADRID (Reuters) - The Spanish regions of Galicia, La Rioja and Cantabria became the latest to tighten coronavirus restrictions on Wednesday amid a spiralling national infection rate that government officials have blamed on lax adherence to the rules over Christmas. Madrid's health chief Enrique Ruiz Escudero said he suspected the highly contagious variant of the virus first identified in Britain was partly to blame for the surge, accusing the government of 'minimising' the issue
MADRID (Reuters) - The Spanish regions of Galicia, La Rioja and Cantabria became the latest to tighten coronavirus restrictions on Wednesday amid a spiralling national infection rate that government officials have blamed on lax adherence to the rules over Christmas.
Madrid's health chief Enrique Ruiz Escudero said he suspected the highly contagious variant of the virus first identified in Britain was partly to blame for the surge, accusing the government of "minimising" the issue.
"Clearly it has played a role in the increase in infection," he told Onda Cero Radio, saying hundreds of suspected cases of the new variant were under investigation in his region.
Spain has confirmed 70 cases of the British strain, and the health ministry has played down its role.
After nationwide contagion ebbed in November, overall infections skyrocketed through December and into early January, doubling the incidence of the virus - as measured over the past 14 days - in just three weeks, to 454 cases per 100,000 people.
Spain's cumulative total of infections stands at 2.14 million cases, while the death toll has hit 52,683.
The National Statistics Institute said over 80,000 more deaths had been recorded since the start of the pandemic than in a normal year, suggesting the true death toll could be much higher.
Unlike neighbouring Portugal, which is preparing to impose a new lockdown this week following similar moves in other European countries, Spanish authorities have said a return to home confinement is not necessary.
Instead, regions have been ramping up a mixture of curfews, caps on gatherings and restrictions on business opening hours.
Northwestern Galicia, which reported a record 1,047 new cases on Wednesday, banned all non-essential travel in the seven largest cities, told bars and restaurants to close at 4 pm and brought forward a curfew to 10 pm.
Regional leader Alberto Nunez Feijoo linked the region's "worrying" transmission rate to high numbers visiting eateries and bars, expecting infections to peak in late January.
Wine-producing La Rioja ordered non-essential businesses to close at 5 pm and limited group meetings to four people, while shopping centres in Cantabria are banned from opening at weekends.
(Reporting by Nathan Allen, Emma Pinedo and Cristina Sanchez; Editing by Inti Landauro and Philippa Fletcher)
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