Heath Minister Salvador Illa, the face of Spain's battle against coronavirus, is stepping down to run for the top post in Catalonia in February's regional elections, his party said Wednesday.

Illa, who has served as health minister in the government of Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, which took office in January, has won huge visibility for coordinating the fight against the virus, with near-daily TV appearances to update the nation on the situation.

Illa will run at the head of the Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSC), the local branch of Sanchez's Socialist party, when regional elections take place on February 14.

But the 54-year-old, who hails from the northeastern Catalonia region, has also been targeted by Spain's right and far-right opposition, who have denounced his "terrible management" of the pandemic.

Spain has been one of the four countries in Europe worst hit by the pandemic, suffering more than 50,000 deaths and nearly 1.9 million infections.

There was no official word on who would replace Illa, but Spain's public RTVE radio and television said it would be Carolina Darias, minister for territorial policy and civil service.

Darias has worked closely with Illa and the regions, which are responsible for managing their own health policy, throughout the pandemic.

In a statement, the Socialist Party hailed Illa's "tireless and crucial work" in the battle against Covid-19. Illa's candidature was to be confirmed by the Socialist Party of Catalonia later on Wednesday.

Illa's surprise candidature came about after Miquel Iceta, who headed the list, decided to step back. On Tuesday, Illa had said he would not run for the presidency of the "Generalitat" (the regional government).

Salvador Illa will run at the head of the Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSC) when regional elections take place on February 14
Salvador Illa will run at the head of the Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSC) when regional elections take place on February 14 AFP / PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU

The vote, Catalonia's fifth election in 10 years, is being held a year ahead of schedule because the region's separatist leader Quim Torra was barred last year by the courts from holding public office.

The Socialists are hoping Illa will improve their showing in the elections after only securing 17 of the regional parliament's 135 seats during the last poll three years ago.

They are also hoping to take advantage of the bitter divide between the region's ruling separatist parties, which have been at loggerheads over strategy since the failed independence bid of October 2017.

Catalonia's 7.5 million people are split over independence, with the latest opinion poll by a Catalan polling firm showing 49.9 percent against and 45.1 percent in favour.

Polls predict the separatist parties will once again win a majority in the Catalan parliament.

But they suggest a close fight between the two ruling parties: Torra's "Together for Catalonia," which has adopted a more hardline stance, and the leftist Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC), which has erred on the side of moderation and dialogue with Madrid.

With a serious demeanour and trademark black-framed glasses, Illa previously served as mayor of La Roca del Valles, his hometown, between 1995 and 2005, before going on to hold various posts in the regional government.

He holds a degree in philosophy and since 2016, has served as number two within the Socialist Party of Catalonia.