Non-essential Spanish workers are being allowed to return to their jobs. But while health experts have expressed support for a cautious relaxation of the economic shutdown initiated on 30 March, exiting total lockdown has inflamed tensions between Spain’s major political parties.

The high-octane debate appears less focussed on safeguarding either the economy or the population and more on tearing down Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s coalition government as it attempts to mitigate a harrowing crisis.

The potential economic impact of prolonging the freeze on Spain’s non-essential workforce is hugely concerning. The European Central Bank has already predicted that, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Spain will suffer its worst crisis since the 1936-39 Civil War that devastated the country and precipitated Franco’s dictatorship.

Some 3.5 million Spaniards have requested ERTEs (temporary employment suspension plans allowing access to a salary percentage as unemployment benefits) in the last four weeks. That is over double the total ERTE requests submitted between 2009 and 2019. The entire decade following the 2008 credit crisis saw some 1.57 million submissions.

The return to non-essential work will allow many to earn some semblance of the living they had before COVID-19. In the construction industry alone, some 1.2 million direct and 500,000 indirect employees will be able to return to work.

Yet there is a fine line between salvaging the Spanish economy and risking further spread of the Coronavirus.

The main opposition party Partido Popular (PP) has accused central government of a lack of foresight in allowing non-essential workers to return to their jobs, adding that it should be focussing on distributing facemasks, PPE and rapid testing kits before reinitiating economic activity.

Isabel Díaz Ayuso, PP president of the Autonomous Community of Madrid, has questioned the efficacy of central government’s proposed hand-out of 10 million face masks to commuters on public transport.

Raising concerns about the logistics of the face mask scheme, Díaz Ayuso summarised the reticence felt by many in Spain: “Another wave [of infection] now would be unforgivable.”

The government, a coalition of the centre-left Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) and far-left Podemos, has assured the population that it is not abandoning containment procedures. Most lockdown measures will remain in place until May; this is just a return to the original state of emergency restrictions introduced on 13 March.

Non-essential industries have also been specifically instructed to safeguard employees. Construction companies, for example, are reportedly implementing staggered shift entry and exit times aiming to avoid overcrowding, alongside timetable alterations to dissuade workers from eating together.

In reality, it is impossible to enforce the idealised scenario of a return to work that is safeguarded by comprehensive protective measures. Some construction firms are reportedly relying on their employees to bring their own PPE to work. Some individuals are electing not to wear facemasks as they are unconvinced they prevent the spread of the virus.

One construction worker told El País that their job is simply incompatible with keeping their mouths covered, as “this is physical work and sometimes you can’t breathe properly.”

A last minute – but vital – change to the non-essential workers ruling has intensified criticism of the government’s overly hasty approach. Late on Sunday 12 April, the evening before non-essential workers were due to resume their jobs, the Official State Bulletin disallowed construction work where contact between workers and building residents would be impossible to avoid, apart from urgent repair cases.

But, contrary to concerns from some politicians, Spain’s health experts are expressing support for a return to non-essential work.

Epidemiologist Joan Ramon Villalbí has highlighted the impact of prolonging the economic freeze on the physical and mental health of the nation’s most vulnerable. “Extreme confinement has serious consequences,” he told El País, pointing out that, for those who live hand-to-mouth, economic freeze directly impacts their ability to eat on a daily basis.

“Moving from extreme confinement to less extreme confinement poses a risk, but a modest one,” he added. Dr Benito Almirante, head of Infectious Diseases at Barcelona’s Vall d’Hebron hospital, echoed his opinion. The transmissible illness load is also lower than it was two weeks ago, he said.

Almirante has also stressed the necessity of resuming normal work in hospitals across Spain, as “we’re getting to a situation where there’s higher mortality and morbidity due to issues that aren’t Coronavirus than due to COVID-19. The country has to start working again at some point.”

Almirante feels the issue is now more political than scientific in Spain.

Opposition parties Ciudadanos, Vox and the Partido Popular (PP) are actively seeking to blame Sánchez’s vice-president Pablo Iglesias in the context of the COVID-19 crisis.

A senior PP source explicitly recognised that “their aim is to criticise and attack Iglesias and identify him with the Prime Minister, in order to weaken them both.”

PP leader Pablo Casado has accused Sánchez of lying, arrogance and incompetence, while Cayetana Álvarez de Toledo, PP Congress spokesperson, suggested coalition vice-president Pablo Iglesias is utilising the COVID-19 crisis to nationalise Spain.

“There’s a certain inclination in far-left political movements like Podemos to exit the crisis heading toward nationalisation, with a stronger State,” she said, insinuating Iglesias is intending to break the “balance between the public and the private.”

Far-right party Vox has manipulated the pandemic to attack the coalition government’s attempts to legalise euthanasia in Spain. In February 2020, the Spanish parliament endorsed the coalition’s plans to legalise euthanasia and doctor-assisted suicide in Spain, while polls indicated broad public support for the proposal.

Vox has now accused the “socialist-communist” government of “ferocious euthanasia” of the nation’s elderly, as over 8000 nursing home residents have died as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Vox’s attacks on the government aim to oust vice-president Iglesias, removing his left-wing populist party Podemos from what they hope will be a Vox-PP-PSOE conversation on the post-pandemic reconstruction of Spain.

Ciudadanos, for their part, have agreed to collaborate with Sánchez on the condition he abandons the populist dimension represented by Iglesias’ anti-austerity party, Podemos.

Sánchez will supposedly schedule a discussion of post-pandemic national reconstruction plans for the end of this week. But the cross-opposition attacks on vice-president Iglesias mean it is still unclear which Spanish political parties will make it to the table.

Like many governments, Sánchez’s administration is in an extraordinarily difficult position. The coalition finds itself forced to balance the precariousness of the Spanish economy with effectively safeguarding short-term public health. While it is encouraging that heath experts are expressing support for a partial return to non-essential work, poor logistics planning means there are fears of potential further outbreaks.

But Sánchez’s problems are compounded by the approach adopted by the opposition parties. Actively seeking to oust one of the nation’s vice-presidents, rather than collaborating for the benefit of Spain’s economy and people at this critical time, looks like undermining the national response to the pandemic. Spain’s opposition, critics will say, appears to have lost sight of the purpose of public service: lives and livelihoods should take precedence over antagonistic political scheming.