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Spain announces package to tackle 'tsunami' coronavirus impact

By Belén Carreño and Ingrid Melander

Spain yesterday announced measures to tackle the economic impact of the coronavirus epidemic, which the country's hoteliers described as a "tsunami" threatening the survival of their businesses.

Funds will be directed to central and regional health authorities, prices of drugs and medical equipment will be capped, and the tourism sector will also receive financial support.

There was little fresh money, however, in the 18 billion euros package announced by Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, with some already earmarked payments simply brought forward.

The bulk of the package goes towards allowing small businesses to make split or delayed tax payments over the next six months.

"These are difficult moments but we will overcome then," Sanchez told a news conference. "We will overcome this with unity and responsibility from all."

Spain, which initially did little in response to the outbreak, changed tack this week after infections soared. It ordered a ban on flights from Italy, warned against domestic and foreign travel, and closed some schools.

Spain's coronavirus death toll rose to 84 on Thursday, a rise of nearly 80% overnight. Spain has the second-highest coronavirus tally in Europe behind Italy.

Sanchez urged more regions to close their schools and universities after Catalonia, the Basque Country, Galicia, Asturias and Murcia on Thursday followed the Madrid region in announcing shutdowns.

Occupancy rates at Spanish hotels have fallen dramatically, with some left empty, and there are "no new bookings" due to the coronavirus epidemic, a top official at Spain's hotels federation CEHAT said.

"A tsunami has arrived. A meteorite has fallen on us and we have to see how we survive," CEHAT Secretary General Ramon Estalella told Reuters.

Amid measures announced by Mr Sanchez, which did not go as far as Italy's 25 billion euros, are 2.8 billion euros in brought-forward transfers to regions, 1 billion euros for the health ministry and 400 million euros for the tourism sector.

STAYING HOME

Mr Sanchez will hold meetings via video conference after fellow minister Irene Montero was diagnosed with coronavirus.

Montero's partner Pablo Iglesias, who is deputy prime minister, was quarantined and all ministers will be tested, as will the royal family. The lower house of parliament, already shut, will extend its closure.

In Madrid, metro stations and bars were unusually quiet.

"Business has gone down a lot, really a lot," said José Manuel González, manager of the Santa Barbara cafe. "It's very quiet at lunchtime, things have dropped by 40%- 50% since the school shutdown."

As #Imstayingathome became a top trending topic on Twitter in Spain, 20-year-old student Alejandro Fernandez said his grandparents had fled Madrid.

"My grandparents, who are 84 and 81 years old, have left for the countryside and have locked themselves up there. We have orders not to go visit them," Mr Fernandez said.

After the Prado and other major museums in Madrid, Barcelona's Sagrada Familia cathedral said it was closing.

Madrid health authorities asked people to donate blood, after a drop in donations in recent days. Doctors in the capital say they could run out of beds in intensive care units.

China has offered help, including medical equipment, to tackle the outbreak, a Spanish government source told Reuters.
(REUTERS)