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How reliable is the coronavirus data coming from Madrid?

Regional authorities in Madrid are locking horns with Spain's central government in a dogfight over coronavirus data.

How reliable is the coronavirus data coming from Madrid?
Conflicting data is coming out of Madrid. But who can we believe?Photos: AFP

After a major standoff over the partial closure of Madrid, Spain's government is now locked in a numbers fight with regional authorities who are relentlessly demanding the restrictions be lifted.   

For days now, the leftwing government of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has been casting doubt on Covid-19 figures from the Madrid public health authorities.

But the region, which is run by a rightwing coalition led by the conservative Popular Party, has hit back furiously, with the PP accusing the government of using “false figures” to justify imposing a state of emergency in Madrid.   

Under the measure, some 4.5 million people in the capital and eight surrounding towns are allowed to leave city limits only for essential reasons linked to work, school or healthcare.

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Citing much improved figures, Madrid has repeatedly demanded the lockdown be lifted, hitting out angrily at government suggestions it had somehow massaged the numbers to give a more favourable picture.

“It's a lie, an insult, because they are questioning the honour of the medics” providing this data, regional justice chief Enrique Lopez said on Wednesday.

Moving the goalposts

The restrictions initially went into force on October 2nd and were supposed to apply to any area of Spain with an infection rate of more than 500 cases per 100,000 people over the previous 14 days, which at the time was only Madrid.

Just days beforehand, the regional rate had risen above 780, compared with just 275 in the rest of Spain — itself at the time the highest in the European Union.   

Madrid is now pushing for the restrictions to be removed saying its infection rate has dropped to around 460 cases per 100,000 inhabitants.   

But the government has since moved the goalposts, now saying the aim is to lower the incidence to around 100 cases per 100,000 people.   

“We need to lower the infection rate not to 500 but much further than that, to around 100 or below, only that way will we be able to flatten the curve,” Health Minister Salvador Illa said on Thursday.

'Understandable lack of trust'

At issue is a dispute over differing figures — those compiled on a daily basis by the central government, and those reported within the region.   

For Kiko Llaneras who analyses data for the daily El Pais, the discrepancy is technical, with both sides using different cut-off dates, and delays between the transfer of data from Madrid and its processing time at the health ministry.

Beyond that, epidemiologist Fernando Garcia of the Madrid Public Health Association says the government has an “understandable lack of trust” in the daily figures reported by Madrid which are “incomplete” because of delays in reporting infections.   

On top of that, Madrid changed its protocol at the end of September and stopped testing some close contacts of those who tested positive, which could result in fewer cases being reported.

“If you're looking less, you find less,” he said.   

Nobody is in any doubt that the situation in Madrid has improved since infections peaked in mid-September.

But experts say this cannot be attributed to the October 2nd restrictions, nor to an earlier partial lockdown imposed on dozens of areas on September 21st because the effects of such measures have yet to be felt.

Rather, they believe that it was down to precautions taken by residents fearing escalating infections.

“When Covid takes over the news, even if temporarily, people improve their behaviour,” said Fernando Rodriguez Artalejo, a public health expert at Madrid's Autonomous University.

In any event, epidemiologists believe the situation in Madrid is a case of too little, too late given the gravity of the situation.

“They are not enough and they come too late, you cannot start reacting when you reach 700 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, you have to start when you go over 50 to keep the incidence low,” said Ildefonso Hernandez, spokesman for the Spanish Society for Public Health.   

“That is the cornerstone of controlling an epidemic.”

By AFP's Diego Urdaneta 

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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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