File photo: Spanish Health Minister Salvador Illa addresses a session at the Lower Chamber of the Spanish Parliament. AFP
Spain's Health Minister Salvador Illa will step down on Tuesday to stand in Catalonia's regional election, the government said, as a resurgence of coronavirus infections swept the country.
Spain is among Europe's hardest-hit nations and Illa has won huge visibility for coordinating the fight against the virus, with regular TV appearances to update the nation on the situation.
But the post has also made him a lightning rod for criticism of the government's handling of the pandemic, which has claimed over 55,000 lives in Spain from nearly 2.5 million cases so far.
Illa was unexpectedly picked in December by the Socialist party as the top candidate for the polls but the date of his departure from the government was not given until now.
He will take part in his last cabinet meeting on Tuesday, where the name of his replacement will be announced, the government said.
Since he was named the party's candidate, the Socialists have risen to first place in opinion polls, ahead of the two separatist parties which currently govern the wealthy northeastern region.
The election in Illa's home region is slated for February 14 but the Catalonia regional government wants to postpone it to May 30 due to the pandemic.
A court is expected to rule in the coming days if the date can be changed.
Opposition parties, especially those on the right, have stepped up their criticism of Illa's handling of the pandemic.
But in a highly decentralised nation like Spain, where regional governments are responsible for health care, it is "very difficult to assign blame" only to Illa, said Salvador Macip, a researcher with the Open University of Catalonia.
'Responsibility To Stay'
It was a "huge mistake" to relax virus restrictions over the Christmas holidays, added Macip, who also criticised Illa for leaving his post at a time of rising infections.
"If you are really doing a good job you have the responsibility to stay until you finish it," he told AFP.
Nationwide infection rates have soared since late December, with 42,885 new cases and 400 deaths added to the tally on Friday alone.
Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez on Monday praised Illa's "leadership based on humility, a strong work ethic and determination".
The Socialists are hoping Illa will improve their showing in the elections after only securing 17 of the regional parliament's 135 seats duing the last election three years ago.
Illa has one of the highest approval rating of any minister in the government, said Pablo Simon, a political science professor at Madrid's Carlos III University
When the pandemic first hit in March, Spain imposed a strict nationwide to slow the spread of the virus but after it was fully lifted at the end of June, the central government transferred responsiblity for management of the pandemic to regions to "shake off a bit of the potential wear of the bad figures" about infections, Simon told AFP.