Gibraltar reels as coronavirus deaths quadruple in fortnight

Gibraltar was reeling Monday after 13 people died at the weekend, with soaring Covid-19 infections driving the death toll up fourfold in under a fortnight.

Gibraltar reels as coronavirus deaths quadruple in fortnight
Photo: AFP

On Sunday, the tiny British enclave at the southern tip of Spain, said nine people had died over a 24-hour period in the highest daily figure yet, raising the total number of deaths to 43. Another four people died on Saturday.

Gibraltar only registered its first death from Covid-19 in mid-November and by January 6, the toll had risen to 10.

Most of those who died over the weekend in their 80s and 90s, a government statement said.   

The deaths came two weeks after Gibraltar imposed a second lockdown to slow the soaring rate of infections, with its 34,000 residents only able to leave home for essential shopping, to work, exercise or for medical reasons.

Initially slated for two weeks, the lockdown was extended on Friday and is likely to remain in place until the end of the month.   

The number of cases has also more than tripled, with the territory counting 3,670 cases, Sunday's figures showed, up from just over 1,000 at the start of December.

“The death toll is growing at an intolerable rate,” said Chief Minister Fabian Picardo.  “It is just devastating at a human level.”  

Officials are concerned the soaring infections may be linked to the new coronavirus variant which was first detected in the UK in November although so far, Gibraltar has only confirmed one such case.

Gibraltar relies on British laboratories for genetic sequencing to confirm cases of the new variant.

“We don't have the information at the moment on the genetic makeup of the strain.. (but it) is behaving as if it were one of those more infectious strains,” Picardo said on January 8th.   

Writing on Twitter on Sunday, Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya sent a message of “solidarity with all Gibraltarians who are fighting #covid19” saying she hoped it would “soon be behind us”.

Despite its proximity to hard-hit Spain, which has counted 2.2 million cases and over 53,000 deaths, Gibraltar has not closed its border which is crossed daily by 15,000 workers, although movement is restricted to essential work or medical reasons.   

Gibraltar began rolling out its vaccination programme on January 9th using the Pfizer vaccine and by Sunday, had administered 5,847 doses — covering around 17 percent of the population.

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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.