Spain’s health chief ‘sorry’ for sexist joke about nurses

Spain's health emergency chief said Tuesday he was sorry for a throwaway sexist comment that outraged the national nurses' guild, prompting the government to demand that he apologise.

Spain's health chief 'sorry' for sexist joke about nurses
Fernando Simón has come under fire for making a "sexist" joke about nurses. Photo: AFP

The controversy erupted on Friday after the emergence of an interview on YouTube with Fernando Simón, the public face of Spain's response to the pandemic who runs the health ministry's emergencies unit.

During the interview, he was asked if he liked “infectious diseases or infectious nurses,” to which he replied: “I didn't ask (the nurses) if they were infectious or not, you (only) see that a few days later.”

The General Council of Nurses lashed out at Simón over his display of “chauvinist and backward disinhibition”, denouncing his remarks as “sexist and primitive”.

“We nurses have for decades been fighting to get rid of all the chauvinistic images and stereotypes,” the council said, adding it was “intolerable that a person in Simón's position could allow himself to denigrate” the profession during the pandemic.   

On Tuesday Simón apologised, saying it was “a very stupid joke” to which he had given “very improper response”.

“I want to apologise to everyone and any groups that were upset by my words which were said in jest. I am sorry,” he said at the start of his daily virus news conference.   

“But the truth is.. I feel really bad that after all these years of trying to rid of these learned reflexes and ways of talking that have nothing to do with my way of thinking.. I still have a lot left to learn,” he said.

“I'll try not to make any more mistakes like this again.”   

His apology was welcomed by Equality Minister Irene Montero.    

“There are jokes and daily remarks that reproduce sexist, homophobic and racist stereotypes. None of us should repeat them. When that happens, and particularly by someone in a public role, we have to recognise it, say sorry and work to ensure it doesn't happen again,” she wrote on Twitter.

Apologising “is to your credit, Fernando”, she said.   

Earlier, Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo said Simón should apologise “as an individual, as a citizen and as a man” for his “very inappropriate” comment which “does not help boost equality and respect for women”.

An epidemiologist who has worked in Latin America and in Africa for the European Union and the World Health Organization, Simón, 57, often uses an informal tone during the health ministry's daily televised briefings on the

He has been criticised by Spain's right-wing opposition for not pushing for more drastic measures at the start of the pandemic, which has now claimed more than 36,000 lives.

Simón himself caught Covid-19 in March, but continued to take part in the ministry's televised briefings from home.

His thick eyebrows and unruly mop of salt-and-pepper hair have been a gift to the nation's cartoonists.

In 2014, he led the response to the Ebola outbreak, when two Spanish missionaries died in a Madrid hospital of the deadly disease.

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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.