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Spain calls for ‘common sense’ after Christmas shoppers throng the streets

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Scenes of packed city centers over the weekend have raised alarm bells, with health authorities asking the public to act responsibly to prevent a new spike in coronavirus cases

Spain’s secretary of state for health, Silvia Calzón, called on the public on Monday to show “responsibility and prudence” after crowds flooded the streets at the weekend to go Christmas shopping and see the traditional festive lights go on. The packed scenes – seen in several cities, including Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia and Málaga – prompted Calzón to recommend that citizens “avoid crowds” in the lead-up to Christmas to avoid worsening the coronavirus situation in Spain. “This is not over,” she warned.

“We would like to make a call for responsibility and prudence,” said Calzón in a radio interview with Spanish station Canal Sur on Monday “It has taken a lot of work and sacrifice to flatten the curve.” The incidence rate of the coronavirus has been steadily falling across Spain, but health authorities warn it still remains at “very high” levels. Although the sharp rise in new cases seen after the summer holidays may have eased, experts warn that increased social gatherings and travel over the festive season could lead to a new spike in infections.

“We cannot forget how badly many families have suffered,” or the impact the virus has had “on the most vulnerable,” said Calzón. “If we like Christmas, let’s ensure that we are all here for next Christmas,” she added, arguing “it’s worth the sacrifice.”

The health official also called on citizens to use “common sense.” She recommended that the public hold gatherings outdoors and avoid crowds to limit the risk of possible contagion. Calzón said the Christmas period was “an especially dear time” but would be “special” this year in a bid to reduce contagions. “We have to focus on protecting those we most love,” she said. “Perhaps we have to sacrifice our way of socializing with lots of people from lots of different areas in order to enjoy more and protect more those we love, especially elderly people.”

With the festive season approaching, the Spanish Health Ministry has proposed a series of measures aimed at preventing the spread of the virus, namely limiting social gatherings to 10 people and setting a 1am curfew for Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. But the final decision on what rules will be in place will fall to the regions. Calzón defended this position on Monday, arguing that regional governments “need to have the necessary autonomy” to set restrictions and adapt them to their “different epidemiological situations.”

Calzón said a group was working on designing “basic measures” that could be applied across Spain, adding that this plan would likely be discussed on Wednesday at the next meeting of the Inter-Territorial Council of the National Health System, which brings together central and regional health chiefs. The raft of measures is aimed at “sending a unified message to the public,” said Calzón, who admitted the restrictions are unlikely to be exactly the same in each region given the differences between each territory.

Packed streets in Madrid “expected”

In Madrid, the city center was packed this weekend with people who had come to take advantage of Black Friday shopping deals and to see the Christmas lights. In response to the crowded scenes, the deputy premier of the Madrid region, Ignacio Aguado, said on Monday that he would prefer for people to “be out on the street than at home, which is where there is more risk” of contagion. In an interview with the Spanish television station La Sexta, which was published by Europa Press, Aguado added: “I fear the concentration of people in enclosed spaces, people going out on the street is not the problem. The problem is in homes, which are hotspots, not on the street or on public transport.” Aguado argued the images of packed streets were “normal Christmas scenes.”

Madrid’s popular Preciados street and the landmark Puerta del Sol square were overwhelmed by crowds over the weekend, but sources from Madrid City Hall told Spanish news agency EFE that the large numbers had been “expected” by local authorities.

Last Friday, the local police force began a special Christmas operation, involving 75 to 100 officers who monitor the city center and decide whether or not to cut off pedestrian access to the streets surrounding Puerta del Sol. The mayor of Madrid, José Luis Martínez-Almeida, said more time was needed for police chiefs and experts to define if more restrictions need to be introduced ahead of the upcoming long weekends. December 8 is a national holiday in Spain, while December 7 is a holiday in all regions except Cantabria, Castilla-La Mancha, Catalonia, Valencia, Galicia and the Basque Country. But he warned: “My advice to Madrileños is to not go to the city center.”

Málaga: “Let’s act as if we were infected”

Similar scenes were also seen in Málaga on Friday, when thousands of people packed into the city’s main avenue, Larios street, to see the Christmas lights go on. Málaga City Hall had not announced what time the lights would be switched on to prevent crowds from gathering, but that did not deter residents from flooding into the historical center. Police forces and volunteers from the Civil Protection service worked all evening to ensure that the public maintained safe distances and did not stop to take photos. Although the mayor of Málaga, Francisco de la Torre, did not directly mention the crowds, he did share a video on social media calling on the public to show “greater responsibility every day.” “Let’s act as if we were all infected: face masks, hand washing, social distancing, avoid transmitting to others the terribleness of an infection,” he said in the video. Local authorities have suspended the traditional light and sound displays in Larios street to prevent crowds and will instead use a single track of Christmas carols.

Valencia recommends staggering shopping

In Valencia, thousands of shoppers descended upon stores for Black Friday discounts, with long lines of people waiting at entrances, especially in smaller establishments, where staff were at the doors to monitor capacity. In the main shopping strip, patient buyers waited to enter stores in search of a deal. “Black Friday has shown the efficiency of the measures introduced, juggling the increase in crowds with strict adherence to health measures,” said Joaquín Cerveró, the spokesperson of the National Association of Large Distribution Companies (ANGED) in Valencia. According to Cerveró, “the early beginning of sales helped more staggered visits to shops, preventing the crowds of other years.” The premier of Valencia, Ximo Puig, has recommended that citizens make their purchases early and in stages to avoid crowds.

Seville suspends light show

The city center of Seville, in the southern Andalusia region, was also crowded on Saturday. In a bid to prevent further crowding, Seville City Hall has suspended all special light and music shows. Local authorities have also decided to delay turning on its Christmas lights “based on the experience of other cities,” according to municipal sources. These sources say the decorative lights will be turned on without prior notice during or after the upcoming long weekend. Currently, in Andalusia all non-essential businesses must close at 6pm. If these rules change, Seville City Hall has said it will introduce measures to prevent crowds.

No safe distances at Barcelona beach bars

Under the restrictions introduced by the Catalan regional government, tables at bars and restaurants must be at least two meters apart. But many of the bars that line Barcelona’s beach decided last weekend to ignore these rules in order to be able to accept more patrons. The local police did not fine any of these establishments, but they did remove 323 people from outdoor drinking sessions – known in Spain as botellones – and fined 143 people for not wearing a face mask and 384 for breaking the curfew.

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Man jailed for WhatsApp threats to kill Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez

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A man has been sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison for threatening to kill Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez.

Manuel Murillo Sanchez was found guilty by Spain’s National Court of preparing to commit assassination and illegal weapons offences.

The 65-year-old former security guard from Tarrasa was arrested in 2018 after making deaths threats in a WhatsApp group.

The court heard how Murillo Sanchez had offered to act as a “sniper” and “hunt down” the Spanish PM “like a deer”.

The suspect’s comments came after the Spanish government had ordered for the remains of former dictator Francisco Franco to be exhumed.

The court rejected his defence that he had been intoxicated when sending the WhatsApp messages and sentenced him to two years and six months in prison for attempted murder.

He was also given a five-year sentence for possessing illegal weapons and banned from owning any firearms for eight years. The verdict is subject to appeal.

The remains of Franco were removed to a cemetery on the outskirts of Madrid in October 2019, prompting anger from far-right groups in Spain.

In a WhatsApp group, Murillo Sanchez had allegedly told fellow users that he was a “sniper with a precise shot” who could target Prime Minister Sanchez.

“We cannot allow them to humiliate Generalissimo Francisco Franco … If necessary, I will go armed and sit on Franco’s tomb, and if they come close, I will shoot”, he reportedly wrote.

The court said the man’s “determination” and the number of weapons seized from him shows “a high level of danger” even if he had not made any specific plans to kill the Spanish PM.

The suspect had repeatedly expressed “his intention to finish off the president of the government” to “bring about a change in the Spanish political situation”, a court statement read.

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Barcelona seeks to ban smoking on all beaches, after positive pilot scheme

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Barcelona City Council is seeking to ban smoking on all of the city’s 10 beaches from this July, following a successful pilot scheme that was carried out on four beaches last summer.

‘The measure aims to facilitate healthier places to live together, with less waste and respect for the environment,’ the council said.

It said that there was a ‘good reception’ to the pilot test of smokeless beaches carried out last year, and which was assessed positively by the public with a score of 8.2 points out of 10. It also resulted in ‘a significant reduction of highly polluting cigarette butts abandoned in the sand’, the council added, resulting in the authorities pushing for an extension of the ban on all 10 beaches of Barcelona’s coastline for this summer.

The council said on Friday that it would be launching a campaign this month to inform residents of the new measure, as well as spreading awareness of its benefits. When the restriction comes into effect in July, it will be monitored by the Barcelona Public Health Agency (ASPB).

Last summer smoking was prohibited on four of the ten beaches in Barcelona (Sant Miquel, Somorrostro, Nova Icària and Nova Mar Bella) from 29 May until 12 September. The regulations last year did not allow Barcelona City Council to actually apply sanctions, but bathers could be told to stop smoking by police officers, and if they then refused to do so, they could have faced fines for disobedience.

According to reports, only 2.6% of beach-goers defied the ban at the four beaches last summer, whilst 19% of those at the city’s other six beaches smoked.

The campaign last year highlighted that 13.8% of deaths annually in Barcelona are attributed to tobacco consumption – some 2,200 people. The campaign also focused on the danger of second-hand smoke, considered particularly harmful for children. A study last year revealed that more than 135,000 cases of respiratory diseases and over 3,000 hospitalisations in children aged under 12 in Spain are attributed to passive smoking.

According to the National Committee for the Prevention of Smoking, approximately five billion cigarette butts end up in the sea each year. Discarded cigarettes contain substances such as cadmium, iron, arsenic, nickel, copper, zinc, or manganese – some of which are toxic to both human and marine life.

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Body of US software mogul John McAfee still in Barcelona morgue, seven months after his death

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The body of American anti-virus developer John McAfee remains in a morgue in the Barcelona City of Justice complex, in the northeastern Spanish region of Catalonia, seven months after his death. It is currently located in the Legal Medicine Institute (Imelec), a grey building with honeycomb windows, while a judge has been preparing a report on his death.

That report, released this week, has determined that the software mogul died by suicide in his prison cell in Barcelona province on June 23, 2021 as he awaited extradition to the United States on charges of failing to file US tax returns from 2014 to 2018.

The 75-year-old’s family had raised questions about the circumstances of his death, even though an autopsy concluded that McAfee hung himself inside his cell at Brians 2 penitentiary in Sant Esteve Sesrovires. Prison workers found a suicide note in the pocket of his pants.

The months-long investigation is not quite over yet, as lawyers for McAfee’s family have appealed the Spanish judge’s decision to provisionally close the case. The provincial court of Barcelona must now decide whether to confirm the judge’s decision or order him to keep the investigation open. The family has argued that the autopsy was incomplete and lacked the “basic elements” to draw definitive conclusions about the cause of death, according to defense sources.

The building in Martorell (Barcelona) that houses the court that’s been investigating the case has so many structural deficiencies that in 2019, Spain’s legal watchdog, the General Council of the Judiciary (CGPJ), ordered two courtrooms closed because of safety hazards. The legal staff in this building is also dealing with a severe backlog of work, which partially explains the delay in concluding the McAfee investigation.

The cybersecurity entrepreneur’s family was very critical of the process from the beginning. His ex-wife, Janice McAfee, traveled to Barcelona and met with three prison officials at Brians 2, but she remained unconvinced by their explanations and questioned the suicide hypothesis. “The last thing he told me was ‘I love you and I’ll call you this evening. Those are not the words of someone who is suicidal’,” she said at the time.

Clear case

But medical experts who examined the body always believed it was a clear case of suicide. McAfee was found hanging from his cell, where he had asked to spend time. He was in pre-trial detention after being charged with tax evasion by the United States. He had been in prison for more than eight months while Spain’s High Court, the Audiencia Nacional, considered the extradition request for failing to file tax returns between 2014 and 2018. On Wednesday morning, McAfee’s lawyers told him that the court had decided to approve his extradition to the US and in the afternoon he killed himself, according to the investigation.

McAfee was the creator of one of the most popular antivirus software programs on the market and was considered a genius in the tech world. His life, however, was plagued by controversy. In 2012, McAfee was named a person of interest by authorities in Belize investigating the murder of his neighbor, but he never faced trial because he fled before he could be questioned. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, McAfee was in Spain’s Catalonia region, where he spent most of the lockdown. Authorities believe he lived in a semi-abandoned hotel in Cambrils called Daurada Park Hotel. Two years earlier, during an administrative inspection, the Catalan police had discovered a cryptocurrency operation in the basement of the hotel.

In July 2021 Spain’s National Police were notified by Interpol about the charges for tax evasion and arrested him on October 3 at Barcelona’s El Prat airport as he was about to fly to Istanbul. The court’s extradition decision, however, could have been appealed, and McAfee’s defense was already working on this process.

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