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Madrid’s top health official resigns in lockdown row

Madrid's top health official stepped down on Thursday after a reported disagreement with regional government requests to ease virus lockdown measures.

Madrid's top health official resigns in lockdown row
File photo of Yolanda Fuentes outside the health ministry in 2014. Photo: AFP

Yolanda Fuentes resigned as Madrid's head of public health as the local authorities asked the central government to relax measures from Monday, a regional spokesman said.

Local authorities gave no reason for Fuentes stepping down during the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 26,000 people in Spain.   

But Spanish media reported she had disagreed with moves to ease restrictions in Madrid, the region hardest hit by the coronavirus in Spain, with a third of the country's fatalities.

Without mentioning Fuentes, Madrid's local government said it had named Antonio Zapatero, who directed a field hospital in the capital at height of the outbreak, to manage lifting the region's lockdown.

The Spanish government is gradually dismantling one of the most severe lockdowns in Europe, in force since March 14. It will ease restrictions into June in stages.

Local regions can request to progress to more open stages if they meet certain criteria, such as having enough hospital beds or the capacity to isolate sources of contagion.

Madrid regional leader Isabel Diaz Ayuso, from the rightwing opposition Popular Party (PP) and a critic of Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, had asked the health ministry for permission to move to another stage and reopen hotels and restaurant terraces and gatherings for up to 10 people.

The move came after fierce debate between the PP and their partners in the regional government, the centre-right Ciudadanos party, about whether it was advisable to further lift measures.

Spain has only recently started lifting some restrictions, allowing children outdoors and adults to leave the house to exercise.    

Some small businesses have also been permitted to receive customers.    

Sanchez has warned that suddenly ending the strict lockdown would be “unforgivable”, but he has faced resistence from right-wing opponents.    

Spain's parliament on Wednesday voted to extend the country's state of emergency, allowing stringent coronavirus lockdown measures to remain in place for at least two more weeks.

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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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