Why is Spain’s Covid-19 vaccine rollout going so slowly?

Only 18 percent of available doses have been administered during the first week of Spain’s vaccine campaign, so what’s causing the holdup at a time when infections are rising?

Why is Spain's Covid-19 vaccine rollout going so slowly?
Photos: AFP

These are the unimpressive findings by health authorities in 12 of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions, who ahead of the national government’s press conference on Monday afternoon, have laid out a rather worrying picture of how the vaccine campaign is going. 

Crucially, data also advanced by some regional governments points to a 30 percent rise in infections between Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve.

Madrid is the region which is lagging behind the most with approximately only 3,000 inoculations during the first seven days (6 percent of the vaccines available), followed by Cantabria which only achieved a 7 percent completion rate since December 27.

Catalonia has currently administered around 13 percent of its available doses.

At the head of the campaign is Asturias in Spain’s northwest, which has used 80 percent of the first available vaccines received (*update: by Tuesday January 4, 100 percent completion of the first batch was achieved).

Galicia and Navarra have also administered half of their vaccine supplies and the Balearic and Canary Islands around 40 percent.

Only once Spanish health officials offer up the full countrywide data on Monday will it be clear just how many of the initial 350,000 Pfizer/BioNTech doses handed to Spain’s regions will have been successfully administered.

What’s causing the delays?

Spain announced back in September that it had a plan for when an EU and Spain-approved coronavirus vaccine was ready for distribution, but the evidence suggests that in practice this hasn’t worked out.

Initial findings by Spain’s Interterritorial Health Council point to four reasons for the unsuccessful start.

There’s the fact that many health workers haven’t been working over Christmas and conversely many elderly residents have spent the holidays with their families and not in care homes where they would’ve been vaccinated.

Equally significant according to health officials are the logistical challenges relating to the storage and transport of the Pfizer vaccine, which has to be kept at -70 C to be effective.

The one-day delay in the shipment of the first batch of vaccines has also been blamed by some regions for the extra holdups.


Can Spain afford any more vaccine holdups?

Voices from within Spain’s health ministry have said it’s just a matter of getting a systematic distribution in place for the vaccination rate to improve. Critics on the other hand argue that at the current pace it would take five years for the country’s vaccination campaign to be complete.

What is clear is that with more than 24,000 infections reported by Spain’s regions since Friday – amounting to a countrywide rise of 30 percent compared to the previous week even though fewer people have had PCR tests over Christmas – further vaccine holdups will be deemed unacceptable by the Spanish public.

There have been more than 100,000 new infections and more than 1,500 deaths since Christmas Eve.

The infection rate is at extreme risk in seven regions and deemed out of control in the Balearic Islands, Extremadura and Madrid.

There is also concern hospitals in Catalonia will soon be overwhelmed as there have been 3,000 people admitted to hospital wards and more than 400 critical cases admitted to the ICUs over the last week.


How does Spain’s vaccine campaign compare to the other European countries?

The general consensus is that vaccine campaigns across Europe aren’t getting off to the quick and efficient start that was hoped for.

As of January 3rd, fewer than 500 people had received the Covid-19 vaccine in all of metropolitan France during the first week of the country’s campaign.

Other EU nations such as Portugal and the Netherlands are yet to begin the rollout.

Germany has been more effective with around 283,000 vaccinations administered during the first seven days.

Other EU nations such as Finland have blamed The European Commission for the slow distribution, but the EU body has defended its coronavirus vaccination strategy, putting the delays down to “an issue of production capacity, an issue that everybody is facing.”

The UK has administered more than one million vaccines since December 8 but is now having to deal with the new strain of the virus and subsequent travel bans and other restrictions just as Brexit has come into effect. 

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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.