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HEALTH

Spain honours 28,000 coronavirus victims as new outbreaks continue

With a watchful eye on the latest virus outbreaks, Spain pauses Thursday to honour its 28,400 victims at a state ceremony joined by top EU and World Health Organization figures.

Spain honours 28,000 coronavirus victims as new outbreaks continue
Attendees sit around a cauldron during a state ceremony to honour the 28,400 victims of the coronavirus crisis as well as those public servants who have been fighting on the front line . AFP

Barely three weeks after coming out of lockdown, Spain has seen a surge in cases and health officials monitoring more than 120 active outbreaks.

The most worrying is in and around the northeastern city of Lerida, where the Catalan regional government has issued a stay-home order affecting 160,000 people. 

Authorities there and in several other regions have stepped up precautions, with mask-wearing compulsory in public at all times, even if the safety distance can be respected. 

Diplomatic support

Among those attending will be EU Council head Charles Michel, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, European Parliament leader David Sassoli and top EU diplomat Josep Borrell.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus will also attend out of respect for “the great number of people who lost their lives to COVID-19 in Spain and the world,” and to stress the UN health body's support for those fighting the virus, a spokeswoman said. 

During the memorial, an orchestra will play Spain's national anthem along with Brahms' “Sacred Song” and people affected by the pandemic will also speak. 

The government, which has been severely criticised for its management of the crisis, declared a 10-day mourning period for the victims in late May — the longest since Spain returned to democracy after the fall of Franco's dictatorship in 1975.

King Felipe VI of Spain (2L) and his daughter Crown Princess Leonor of Spain leave roses next to a cauldron, flanked by the brother of Spanish journalist Jose Maria Calleja, who died of COVID-19, Hernando Calleja (R) and the Catalan nurse Aroa Lopez (L) during a state ceremony. AFP

Spain suffered a particularly deadly outbreak of the coronavirus which has officially claimed more than 28,400 lives, making it the seventh worst-hit country in the world in terms of death toll. 

However, figures provided by the National Statistics Institute (INE) and the Carlos III Health Institute showed that in recent months, the death toll in Spain had been between 43,000 and 44,000 higher than the monthly average. 

But the government says such figures include those who died of other causes or had COVID symptoms and never had a PCR test — a key requirement for being added to the official count. 

With the population back on the streets and the borders with Europe and a dozen other countries now open, Spain has seen the number of new infections rising. 

When the epidemic first hit, the government of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez declared a state of emergency on March 14, allowing it to impose one of the world's tightest lockdowns.

But it has ruled out any renewal of the measure, saying the regional health authorities will be able to control outbreaks. 

“With the peak behind us, the regions have the necessary tools to tackle particular situations. Fresh outbreaks were expected and are occurring in all countries,” deputy prime minister Carmen Calvo said on Tuesday.

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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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