ANALYSIS: Spain risks a third wave with its confusing Christmas message

Spain has done well in bringing down its infection rate but it is risking a third wave with its confusing Christmas message, writes Graham Keeley.

ANALYSIS: Spain risks a third wave with its confusing Christmas message
Christmas shoppers crowd a street in Madrid on December 7. Photo: AFP

Christmas in Spain is normally a time for choirboys and girls to chirp the El Gordo numbers before news crews descend on an unknown village where the cava is popping.

Talking of which, another mainstay of the festive season in the past has been the Freixenet advertisement when celebrities would pop up and sip the fizzy stuff.

This year, of course, things are going to be rather different. Take the Spanish government's public health spot for a start.

It is all masks and small gatherings. People saying hello but acting very responsibly. No hugs or kisses.


That is the public image of a country taking the risk of a Christmas surge in COVID-19 cases very seriously.

However, is it me or is the government advice to the population somewhat confusing?

Salvador Illa, the health minister, told us recently the best thing to do is to stay at home.

Regions should close their borders for Christmas and New Year to stop the spread of COVID-19. Christmas gatherings should be limited to six people. 

However, lla went on to say that family members and 'allegados' could travel across the country to see relatives. 

This word allegados has attracted quite a lot of attention mostly because though most Spaniards know what it means, many others may not.

It means those people you have an emotional tie with like close relatives who are not immediate family.

So, you should stay at home, but you can go to see relatives. Eh?

When I heard this strategy I was reminded of Matt Lucas' take on Boris Johnson's strategy of returning to work. 'Go to work, don't go to work'. Check it out if you have not seen it.


I was not the only one who was confused. 

Above a picture of the emergency care unit, health care workers at Hospital Marqués de Valdecilla in Santander tweeted:

“We are confusing people, dinners for 6, 10, relatives, forget everything, this Christmas should be different, only with those who live. The only place we'll mix is this. Please have common sense and responsibility.”

To add to the confusion is the way different regions may choose to apply the Spanish government's advice. And it is only advice as the central government has left health care management in the hands of the 17 regions.

As I write, Madrid has announced it will allow people to enter and leave the region during the Christmas period. Yet, this is the place which still has the highest rate of infections around the country.

Compare Spain's odd Christmas guidelines to the way Angela Merkel addressed the German people on the same subject.

In an emotional speech, she said: “There are 14 days left until Christmas. And we have to do everything we can to prevent another exponential growth.

“I really am sorry, from the bottom of my heart. But if the price we pay is 590 deaths a day then this is unacceptable.”

The regulations may be confusing but the key question is whether Spain has managed to bring the second wave of coronavirus infections under control?

Professor Rafael Bengoa, a former World Health Organisation health systems director who is now co-director of the Institute for Health and Strategy in Bilbao, said Spain was under the false impression it had flattened the curve. 

“Spain believes the curve is under control (more than in Germany) but none of the two are anywhere near what you need to have a semi-normal Christmas,” he told The Local.

“I think Germany is right in relation to Christmas – a quasi-lockdown. I am saying that the virus here also has many 'allegados' and they are all infecting.”

So, what is the infection level right now?

Since Spain entered a second state of emergency in October, contagion levels have dropped dramatically.

The infection rate fell on Thursday below 190 cases per 100,000 people, measured over the past 14 days, the first time this has taken place since August.

The Spanish health ministry reported 7,955 new cases on Thursday, bringing the total to 1.72 million.

Despite the falling infection rate, England removed Spain's Canary Islands from its safe travel list because of rising numbers of cases, meaning returning travellers will have to quarantine from Saturday, the same rule which has applied to the rest of Spain.

So, it seems Professor Bengoa has a point. Spain is not out of the woods.

Another piece of advice from the government and the World Health Organisation is to shop online for presents.

However, at the weekends news reports have been full of pictures of crowded shopping streets.

Here's hoping that people come to their senses over Christmas.

After all, the vaccine is supposed to arrive in January.



Graham Keeley is a Spain-based freelance journalist who covered the country for The Times from 2008 to 2019. Follow him on Twitter @grahamkeeley .








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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.