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Spain becomes first Western European nation to top 1 million Covid-19 cases

A hospital staff member prepares to treat a patient suffering from the coronavirus disease, after Catalonia's government imposed new restrictions in an effort to control an outbreak of the disease in Barcelona. Photo by REUTERS/Nacho Doce

Spain became the first Western European country to exceed one million coronavirus infections on Wednesday, doubling its tally in just six weeks despite a series of increasingly stringent measures to control the second wave.

Health ministry data showed total cases had reached 1,005,295, rising by 16,973 from the previous day. The death toll increased by 156 to 34,366.

After slowing to a trickle in the wake of Spain's strict March to June lockdown, the infection rate accelerated to frequently exceed 10,000 cases a day from late August, and hit a new peak of more than 16,000 last week.

A hurried exit from confinement before tracing systems were in place let transmission get out of hand faster than in other countries, said Dr. Rafael Bengoa, co-founder of Bilbao's Institute for Health and Strategy.

He also blamed Spain's deeply entrenched political polarisation for the rise.

"There's a lot of political noise but a shocking leadership vacuum," he said.

As Spain's health ministry released the latest figures, most of its lawmakers were bitterly debating a motion of no confidence in Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez launched by the far-right Vox party

"These politicians are only comfortable with the simplicity of short-term... ideologically motivated debates, but the virus doesn't care about ideology," Dr Bengoa said.

While daily deaths have been hovering around 100 - a far cry from the peak of nearly 900 registered in late March - nationwide hospital admissions have jumped 20% in two weeks and 70% in Catalonia.

That may potentially force some Barcelona hospitals to suspend non-urgent procedures.

Desperate to avoid a repeat of the first wave, when the virus ravaged Spain's elderly population and brought the health service to its knees, several regions have toughened restrictions in the past weeks.

The tiny wine-producing region of La Rioja joined nearby Navarre in announcing a blanket ban for all non-essential travel to and from the area.

The government is also contemplating curfews for the worst-hit areas, including Madrid, where a two-week state of emergency is due to expire on Saturday.

But conservative regional leader Isabel Diaz Ayuso, who has regularly locked horns with the left-wing government, said she would prefer more "surgical measures" that do not penalise businesses.

"What's most important is that the economy doesn't suffer any more," she told a news conference on Wednesday.

Neighbouring France has more than 900,000 cases and could also surpass 1 million this week, though its population is around 40% larger than Spain's.

Both Britain and Italy have reported more deaths than Spain, but fewer overall infections. (Reuters)

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