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COVID-19

Spain’s government causes uncertainty as daily Covid-19 death toll is put ‘on hold’

For days now, Spain's daily coronavirus death toll has been on hold, generating widespread uncertainty about the real state of the pandemic that has claimed more than 27,000 lives in the country.

Spain's government causes uncertainty as daily Covid-19 death toll is put 'on hold'
Spanish PM Pedro Sánchez and the health ministry's emergencies coordinator Fernando Simon. Photos: AFP

The health ministry's emergencies coordinator Fernando Simón, who for months has given a daily briefing on the pandemic's evolution, acknowledged the “astonishment” and “confusion” generated by the figures.

On May 25th, the ministry changed its method of collecting data on confirmed cases and fatalities, initially giving a daily death toll of between 50 and 100.

But the figure then fell to fewer than five per day and on some days there were no deaths at all.

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez even told parliament there had been “no deaths” for several days, prompting a backlash from the right and the far-right who have since accused him of hiding the real number of fatalities.

“(The) biggest danger is communicating this idea that the epidemic is over because the virus is still present in our country although at much lower levels,” warned Salvador Macip, an expert in health sciences at Catalonia's Open University.

Simon has said the new system was set up to facilitate the rapid detection and isolation of any new outbreak and that the regions must provide a detailed breakdown of cases, rather than lumping all figures together.

But last week he acknowledged that the overall number of deaths had remained “frozen” as a result of discrepancies in the figures, which he put down to delays in submitting data in certain regional areas.

Since June 7th, the number of dead has stuck at 27,136 while the regional authorities “review the information on deaths.. (until) they can give a precise death date which will give a clearer sequence,” Simon said.

But some regions have hit back, insisting they have submitted all the required data yet saying it wasn't reflected in the overall balance.

Such was the case with Andalusia whose health minister Jesus Aguirre recently lashed out at the central government's “total lack of respect for the dead” in publishing lower figures than those submitted by the southern region itself.

One problem with the new system is that it puts “excessive emphasis on reporting the previous day's figures” because if the data arrive after the deadline, they're not added to the daily total, explained Kiko Llaneras, a data analyst with El Pais newspaper.

It has turned into “a source of huge disinformation” and in terms of communication it has “tainted the entire debate”, he said.

The situation became even more chaotic this week after the National Statistics Institute (INE) and the Carlos III Health Institute published figures showing that Spain's death toll has been between 43,000 and 44,000 higher than it has been on average in recent years.

And this “excess mortality” has further inflamed the opposition who point to it as proof the government is playing down the death toll.

But the government has rejected such claims, saying such figures include those who died of other causes or had Covid symptoms and never had a PCR test.

Such testing kits, which were very scarce at the start of the outbreak, have since become essential for confirming a new case and adding it to the overall figures.

“It is normal that the death toll does not coincide with the excess mortality figures,” explained Ildefonso Hernández, spokesman for the Spanish Society of Public Health, saying similar situations occur during flu season and heatwaves.

“Is the government hiding deaths under the carpet? No it's not. Is the government communicating clearly? No, it's not doing that either,” he complained.

“One of the fundamental issues is that the management of information and communicating figures in the epidemic has not been clear enough,” agreed Llaneras.

Q&A: What we know about travelling to Spain this summer

 

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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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