ANALYSIS: How long can Spain avoid another full lockdown?

As coronavirus cases continue to rise in the wake of the Christmas holidays, Graham Keeley asks how long can Spain avoid the inevitable.

ANALYSIS: How long can Spain avoid another full lockdown?
Photo: AFP

Pedro Sanchéz took time out from his prime ministerial duties this week to retweet a warning to mind how you drive as Storm Filolmena held the country in its icy grip.

As children – and, hands up, some adults  – marvel at the pictures of snow falling over the country, it is tempting to wish it had not come over Christmas.

True, a blizzard might have forced us to endure endless replays of White Christmas on the radio but the price would have been worth it if it prevented family gatherings for which it seems we are now paying the price.

The total number of coronavirus infections passed the two million mark on Thursday after the expected surge following the Christmas holidays.

The milestone came as the government announced another 42,360 new cases over the past 48 hours, bringing the cumulative figure to 2,024,904.

However, seroprevalence studies, which test people using a blood serum sample, suggest that the real figure is much higher.

Over the same 48-hour period, Spain also saw another 245 deaths, raising the overall toll to 51,675.

Crucially, the incidence rate also shot up, rising from 296 cases per 100,000 people to 321, according to the latest figures.

It means Spain, like much of the rest of Europe, is in the middle of the third wave of COVID-19.

“The total number of confirmed cases… already exceeds two million today,” said Maria Jose Sierra, deputy head of the health ministry's emergencies unit.

“Clearly, we are seeing a new increase in cases, they have decreased and now they are increasing again in what we could call the third wave.”

So, as the latest raft of restrictions came into action the day after Los Reyes Magos or Epiphany around the country, the real question appears to be how long can Spain avoid another full lockdown?

Salvador Illa, the health minister who is soon to leave his post to stand as a Socialist candidate in the Catalan elections, has so far ruled out this measure. 

Illa said on Friday: “The number of cases, the pressure on hospitals, the number of positive PCR tests is rising. The pandemic is worsening.”

He appealed to people to avoid contact and to abide by local restrictions on movement.

School closures, which have happened in Britain and elsewhere, are not being considered yet. The government says that according to their research COVID-19 cases in schools have been isolated and sufficient measures have been taken to prevent larger outbreaks.   

Spain, of course, has been caught on the horns of a dilemma like countries everywhere.

If they bring in a second lockdown and close schools it will damage the economy just when it is hoped that the economy might begin to recover.

Nadia Calviño, the economy minister, said there were signs that GDP had risen in the last quarter of 2020.

The government appears to be pinning its hopes on rolling out the vaccination programme so it can beat the surge in new infections. Illa has repeatedly said that he believes health services can reach 70 percent of the population by the end of the summer.

But it has not started well.

Madrid and Catalonia were harshly criticised for giving jabs to a small number of people despite receiving the largest amount of doses.

By last Saturday, Madrid had been given 48,000 doses but had only vaccinated 3,000 people.

In Catalonia, where 60,000 doses were sent each week, only 8,293 people had had the jab.

The failings prompted protests from doctors and health experts and even an editorial in El País, the left-wing daily.

However, it was not the entire picture. Asturias had used 100 percent of the doses which it had received.

What a difference a week can make in politics.

On Monday, only 82,000 people had been vaccinated, a figure which sparked a huge row in a country with a population of 47 million.

Do the maths. At that rate, how long is going to take to get everyone vaccinated?

Step forward to Friday.

Dr Sierra said that now about 200,000 have received the Pfizer vaccine out of the 743,000 doses which have been delivered.

Even at this rate, Spain needs to speed up its vaccination rate to meet the government's target of giving the jab to more than two thirds of the population by September.

It seems that, despite all our hopes, 2021 may prove to be just as challenging as last year.



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.