Should Spain’s govt have allowed Women’s Day march on eve of outbreak?

Spain's left-wing government was facing growing pressure Wednesday after a damning report emerged criticising its decision to permit a huge March 8th Women's Day rally in Madrid as the epidemic gathered pace.

Should Spain's govt have allowed Women's Day march on eve of outbreak?
Photo: AFP

Spain has suffered one of the most-deadly outbreaks of the virus that has so far killed more than 27,000 people, with the battle to contain the epidemic becoming increasingly politicised.   

As the country began a 10-day mourning period to grieve the victims, a storm of controversy blew up around Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska for sacking a top Madrid police chief who oversaw the report, prompting calls for his resignation.

The dispute centres on a case recently opened by an investigating magistrate following a private complaint over the government's handling of the crisis in Madrid, the epicentre of the epidemic. 

A key question in the investigation, which is looking into suspicions of possible administrative misconduct, is whether the government should have let the International Women's Day rally go ahead.

The march was attended by 120,000 people including many members of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's government, with three ministers later testing positive for the virus.

Tens of thousands of people gathered for the march through Madrid. Photo: AFP


As part of the probe, the magistrate commissioned a report from the city's Guardia Civil police, and has summoned Jose Manuel Franco, the government representative in Madrid, to appear on June 5 to explain why he let the march
and other events go ahead.   

According to the report, a copy of which was seen by AFP, Franco's department “was aware of the danger involved” in holding such a rally.    

At the time, the epidemic was already under way but the scope of it only began to emerge on March 9 when the numbers shot up and Madrid said it was shutting down all the region's schools.

Five days later, the government declared a strict nationwide lockdown to slow the spread of the virus.

'Thousands of lives put at risk'

“We demand you take responsibility for subverting the judicial independence of the investigation into alleged crimes on March 8th when thousands of lives were put at risk,” opposition leader Pablo Casado of the right-wing Popular
Party charged on Wednesday.   

The Guardia Civil report also criticised the health ministry's emergencies coordinator Fernando Simón for not advising against the rally, while privately telling an evangelical churches' representative that “under no circumstances” should they hold a congress with international visitors.

A woman wears a mask during the march in Madrid. Photo: AFP

But Simón brushed off the criticism, telling reporters on Tuesday the impact of the march was “marginal” on a weekend when the city also hosted a football match, public transport was running normally and the far-right Vox held a rally of 9,000 people after which several of its leaders tested positive.

The increase seen on March 9th “is not attributable to the (previous) weekend” but to cases that would have been transmitted at the end of February, taking into account the incubation period, he said.   

The impact of that weekend would have been seen “perhaps 16 or 17 days later, but no specific increase was noted in that period,” he adding: “What we saw was the expected evolution of the curve.”

The minister responds

On Monday, Grande-Marlaska dismissed Diego Perez de los Cobos, head of the Guardia Civil in Madrid who was responsible for the report.   

“The executive cannot impose pressure like this,” Jose Cobo of the Spanish Guardia Civil Association told AFP, saying he suspected the minister knew about the report.

Quizzed over the move in parliament on Wednesday, Grande-Marlaska, a former anti-terror judge, rejected the allegations, saying the dismissal was part of a planned reshuffle in the Guardia Civil leadership and denying he had access to the report.

“There has not been any interference with any other power of state and there will never be as long as I am interior minister,” he said.

By AFP's Álvaro Villalobos 

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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.