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HEALTH

Madrid opens huge new ‘pandemic’ hospital amid protests over lack of staff

Madrid on Tuesday inaugurated a huge, controversial new hospital built in just three months and capable of treating more than 1,000 patients during a health emergency.

Madrid opens huge new 'pandemic' hospital amid protests over lack of staff
Photos: AFP

The Isabel Zendal complex, which covers 80,000 square metres (860,000 square feet) cost nearly €100 million ($120 million).   

Its purpose is to ease pressure on hospitals in the Madrid region, which has suffered one of the most deadly outbreaks of the novel coronavirus.    

Isabel Diaz Ayuso, the conservative leader of Madrid's regional government who kicked off the project, attended the opening of the vast complex near Barajas airport on the city's eastern flanks.

Wires could be seen dangling from the ceiling of the still-empty hospital, with the first patients expected to arrive next week.

So far, the region has recruited 116 medical staff to work there, but has not said whether it intends to contract more.   

The hospital “is adapted to suit any situation we might go through” said Diaz Ayuso, indicating its intensive care unit would be “the most advanced in Madrid”.

Set to open in stages, Isabel Zendal will be mainly used to reduce pressure on other hospitals so they can gradually recover non-Covid-19 activity, from waiting lists to surgeries and medical care consultations, the region said last week.

But the hospital's construction has sparked opposition, with dozens of healthcare professionals demonstrating outside the new building to criticise a project they say is “useless” at a cost that came in twice the initial budget.   

“They're inaugurating a hospital which we see as unnecessary. There are unused beds in other hospitals,” said Olga Álvarez, a lab technician at the city's Gregorio Marañon hospital and member of the MATS health workers union.

The money used to build Isabel Zendal could have been funnelled into resources that were “really necessary like contact tracers, personnel or material,” she added.

“A public hospital can't be bad news for anyone, except for those with a political agenda,” remarked Diaz Ayuso, pointedly referring to the absence from the opening of Salvador Illa, health minister in Spain's leftwing government.

The Madrid region's hospitals were overwhelmed during the first wave, prompting the military to set up a vast field hospital in an exhibition centre to cope with soaring patient numbers.   

Spain has been badly hit by the pandemic, so far counting more than 1.6 million cases and losing over 45,000 lives.

Of those figures, one in four deaths occurred in the Madrid region as well as just over a fifth of all infections.

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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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