ANALYSIS: Why is Spain refusing to impose another lockdown?

Spain's government is adamant that a nationwide lockdown isn't necessary even though infection rates are soaring. Graham Keeley wonders if the gamble can pay off.

ANALYSIS: Why is Spain refusing to impose another lockdown?
Archive image of medics looking out from hospital windows. Photo: AFP

Spain is gambling that the third wave of coronavirus can be beaten without bringing in another tough lockdown which will further damage the economy.

It is bucking the trend of European governments like Britain which have confined their populations to their homes once again as contagion rates rise.

Spain's coalition government has refused to allow 15 of the 17 regions to bring the curfew forward from 10pm to 8pm. Other regions wanted to impose household lockdowns, which were also denied.

Yet infection rates have tripled and hospital admissions doubled in the past three weeks.

On the RTVE television news this morning, a doctor at the Virgen de la Salud Hospital in Toledo, in Castilla la Mancha, said: “We are cannot take any more patients. The intensive care unit and the rest of the hospital is overwhelmed.”

Spain reported a record 41,576 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday and the cumulative incidence rate of reported cases of COVID-19 per 100 000 population over the last 14 days has soared to 736.23.

The number of reported daily cases in Spain has now over taken that of the United Kingdom. Yet Britain is under a tough home lockdown.


So, can Spain's gamble pay off? 

Salvador Illa, the Spanish health minister, remains confident.

“Spain defeated the second wave and will defeat the third wave with the same measures,” he said.

However, health experts that I have spoken to say this confidence is misplaced.

Rafael Bengoa, a former director of the World Health Organisation health systems director who is now the co-director of the Institute for Health and Strategy in Bilbao, believes that it is impossible to say the third wave has been conquered if cumulative contagion rates are still soaring.

“I think they believe they will bend the curve (of contagions) because they say they beat the second wave. One hasn't beaten a wave if you are still (over) 200 (cases per 100,000),” he said.

“They decided to allow a lax family Christmas (like Ireland) and we are seeing the result of that now.”

Professor Bengoa believes the government's strategy may damage the economy more than if it had enforced a strict home lockdown just after Christmas.

“This wave will be controlled little by little with the (current) restrictions but it will come down very, very slowly meaning the economy will be worse hit than if we had done a severe lockdown before,” he said.

The left-wing government's strategy of allowing its 17 regions to decide local restrictions is rooted in political priorities, analysts believe.

Keen to keep the separatist Catalan regional authorities and Basque nationalists onside, Spanish prime minister Pedro Sanchez handed power to the regions when Spain came out of lockdown last summer.

Spain is currently in a state of emergency which is expected to last until May and which implies a raft of restrictions on daily life.

However, only the central government has the power to impose a full home lockdown.

No doubt, with the Spanish economy still in dire straits, the government does not want to put the eventual recovery in more jeopardy by sending the population home.

The furlough scheme has been extended this week until May and business sources I have spoken to suggest it will carry on until the end of the year or beyond.

Against this background is the question of what happens after furlough ends.

Many business owners I have spoken to have predicted that there will be a raft of bankruptcies because of the government's edict that companies must keep staff on for at least six months post furlough.

They say this will be unsustainable for companies which have made little money during the pandemic.

“We have had to borrow just to keep afloat during the furlough scheme so when that comes to an end we will unfortunately not have the money to keep all our staff on, much as we would like to,” one restaurant owner told me.

“If we are forced to employ people we cannot afford for six months this will not be possible. Like many other businesses we will have to go bankrupt.”

So, Mr Sanchez – like leaders the world over – is no doubt weighing up a difficult choice as his government continues to refuse to impose another draconian lockdown.

Should he put the economy or public health first? Time will tell. 



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.