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Spain asks NATO for urgent medical supplies to fight coronavirus epidemic

Spain's armed forces on Tuesday asked NATO for humanitarian assistance to fight the novel coronavirus as the national death toll touched 2,700 and infections soared towards 40,000.

Spain asks NATO for urgent medical supplies to fight coronavirus epidemic
A policeman talks to a member of the Spanish Army's Military Emergency Unit (UME) wearing a protective suit outside the Palacio de Hielo (Ice Palace) shopping mall where an ice rink was turned into a

With the pandemic spreading across the world, Spain has been one of the worst-hit countries, logging the third highest number of deaths with the latest toll standing at 2,696 after another 514 people died over the past 24 hours.

Despite an unprecedented lockdown imposed on March 14, both deaths and infections have continued to mount, with the Spanish army called in to join efforts to curb its spread.

With authorities stepping up testing, the number of people diagnosed with COVID-19 rose by nearly 20 percent to 39,673, the health ministry said.

Health authorities said it would soon become clear whether the lockdown was having the desired effect.

“This is a very hard week because we're in the first stages of overcoming the virus, a phase in which we are approaching the peak of the epidemic,” Health Minister Salvador Illa told a televised news conference.

Like many other countries, Spain has been struggling with a lack of medical supplies for testing, treatment and the protection of frontline workers.

In a statement, NATO said Spain's military had asked for “international assistance”, seeking medical supplies to help curb the spread of the virus both in the military and in the civilian population.

The request specified 450,000 respirators, 500,000 rapid testing kits, 500 ventilators and 1.5 million surgical masks.

'War economy'

The government has said it is working on plans to produce in Spain the equipment needed to battle coronavirus.

“We are starting to talk about a war industry, a war economy and it is essential,” Industry Minister Maria Reyes Maroto told a news conference.

With the numbers still spiralling, the government of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez on Tuesday sought parliamentary approval to extend the state of emergency for an extra two weeks, until April 11 — the day before Easter — in a bid to slow the spread of the virus.

“We are aware of just how hard it is to prolong this situation, but it is absolutely imperative that we keep fighting the virus in order to win this battle,” government spokeswoman Maria Jesus Montero told the news conference.

Spain, she said, was in “the decisive phase in responding to the crisis, a crisis which was testing Spanish society in the most unimaginable way”.

The surge in numbers has brought the medical system to the brink of collapse, with some 5,400 healthcare workers testing positive for the virus, around 12 percent of the total.

The Madrid region has suffered the brunt of the epidemic with 12,352 infections — just under a third of the total — and 1,535 deaths, or 57 percent of the national figure. 

Easter and beyond?

Speaking to TVE public television, the Madrid region's top health official, Enrique Ruiz Escudero, said the crisis was “unprecedented in the history of Spain's national health service”, suggesting it was likely that the lockdown would extend beyond Easter, which this year falls on April 12. 

With the city's funeral services overwhelmed, Madrid officials have commandeered the Palacio de Hielo ice skating rink to serve as a temporary morgue. 

“We don't have the logistical capacity to carry out all the burials and cremations at the rate at which people are dying,” Madrid's mayor Jose Luis Martinez-Almeida told TVE public television. 

The Spanish capital has also transformed part of a giant exhibition centre into a field hospital with 1,500 beds which could be expanded take in up to 5,500 patients.

Police on Tuesday caught three “irresponsible” coronavirus patients who left hospital without authorisation and risked spreading the disease to others, Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska said.

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COVID-19

Spain rules out EU’s advice on compulsory Covid-19 vaccination 

Spain’s Health Ministry said Thursday there will be no mandatory vaccination in the country following the European Commission’s advice to Member States to “think about it” and Germany’s announcement that it will make vaccines compulsory in February.

Spain rules out EU's advice on compulsory Covid-19 vaccination 
A Spanish man being vaccinated poses with a custom-made T-shirt showing Spain's chief epidimiologist Fernando Simón striking a 'Dirty Harry/Clint Eastwood' pose over the words "What part of keep a two-metre distance don't you understand?' Photo: José Jordan

Spain’s Health Minister Carolina Darias on Thursday told journalists Covid-19 vaccines will continue to be voluntary in Spain given the “very high awareness of the population” with regard to the benefits of vaccination.

This follows the words of European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen on Thursday, urging Member States to “think about mandatory vaccination” as more cases of the Omicron variant are detected across Europe. 

READ ALSO: Is Spain proving facts rather than force can convince the unvaccinated?

“I can understand that countries with low vaccine coverage are contemplating this and that Von der Leyen is considering opening up a debate, but in our country the situation is absolutely different,” Darias said at the press conference following her meeting with Spain’s Interterritorial Health Council.

According to the national health minister,  this was also “the general belief” of regional health leaders of each of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities she had just been in discussion with over Christmas Covid measures. 

READ MORE: Spain rules out new restrictions against Omicron variant

Almost 80 percent of Spain’s total population is fully vaccinated against Covid-19, a figure which is around 10 percent higher if looking at those who are eligible for the vaccine (over 12s). 

It has the highest vaccination rate among Europe’s most populous countries.

Germany announced tough new restrictions on Thursday in a bid to contain its fourth wave of Covid-19 aimed largely at the country’s unvaccinated people, with outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel speaking in favour of compulsory vaccinations, which the German parliament is due to vote on soon.

Austria has also already said it will make Covid-19 vaccines compulsory next February, Belgium is also considering it and Greece on Tuesday said it will make vaccination obligatory for those over 60.

But for Spain, strict Covid-19 vaccination rules have never been on the table, having said from the start that getting the Covid-19 jabs was voluntary. 

There’s also a huge legal implication to imposing such a rule which Spanish courts are unlikely to look on favourably. 

Stricter Covid restrictions and the country’s two states of alarm, the first resulting in a full national lockdown from March to May 2020, have both been deemed unconstitutional by Spain’s Constitutional Court. 

READ ALSO: Could Spain lock down its unvaccinated or make Covid vaccines compulsory?

The Covid-19 health pass to access indoor public spaces was also until recently consistently rejected by regional high courts for breaching fundamental rights, although judges have changed their stance favouring this Covid certificate over old Covid-19 restrictions that affect the whole population.

MAP: Which regions in Spain now require a Covid health pass for daily affairs?

“In Spain what we have to do is to continue vaccinating as we have done until now” Darias added. 

“Spaniards understand that vaccines are not only a right, they are an obligation because we protect others with them”.

What Spanish health authorities are still considering is whether to vaccinate their 5 to 11 year olds after the go-ahead from the European Medicines Agency, with regions such as Madrid claiming they will start vaccinating their young children in December despite there being no official confirmation from Spain’s Vaccine Committee yet.

READ MORE: Will Spain soon vaccinate its children under 12?

Spain’s infection rate continues to rise day by day, jumping 17 points up to 234 cases per 100,000 people on Thursday. There are now also five confirmed cases of the Omicron variant in the country, one through community transmission.

Hospital bed occupancy with Covid patients has also risen slightly nationwide to 3.3 percent, as has ICU Covid occupancy which now stands at 8.4 percent, but the Spanish government insists these figures are “almost three times lower” than during previous waves of the coronavirus pandemic.

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