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COVID-19

FOCUS: Coronavirus crisis intensifies Spain’s power struggles

Soaring coronavirus infection rates are heaping pressure on Spain's hospitals and intensifying a power struggle between regional and central government.

FOCUS: Coronavirus crisis intensifies Spain's power struggles
Photo: AFP

The regions, which are responsible for health care, are pushing hard for more powers to tackle the contagion, but ministers are resisting.    

More than half the country's 17 regional governments have called on Madrid to alter a state of emergency imposed in October.   

The emergency grants them powers to impose curfews between 10:00 pm and 7:00 am, order restaurants and other businesses to close and impose limits on the size of public gatherings.

Regions argue that they should be allowed to go further and impose wider curfews and restrictions but Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's government says the existing powers are enough.

“It is not a question of adding many more measures suddenly but of applying the ones which have been adopted well and waiting the required days to evaluate their results,” Health Minister Salvador Illa told a news conference late on Wednesday after meeting regional officials.

Hospitals filling up

Spain has been among the hardest-hit countries in Europe, registering more than 2.4 million cases and more than 54,000 deaths since the epidemic hit.    

The country imposed one of the world's strictest lockdowns early last year, which crippled its economy and left the public traumatised.    

The drastic measure helped curb infections during the summer but there was a spike in autumn and another has emerged in recent weeks, with nearly 42,000 new infections and 464 deaths on Wednesday alone.

In six Spanish regions, more than 40 percent of intensive care beds are occupied with Covid-19 patients.

At Barcelona's Hospital del Mar, every intensive care bed is taken because of the virus surge.   

“For weeks, it's been difficult to find empty beds,” Dr Mati Gracia told AFP.   

'Authoritarian' decision

The wine-producing La Rioja region, Valencia on the east coast and Andalusia in the south have all ramped up their measures.   

“We can't do more with the authority that we have been assigned,” said Andalusia's regional health minister, Jesus Aguirre, of the conservative Popular Party.

His region is among those to have asked the Socialist-led central government for more power.

Some officials have openly expressed their frustration, with Francisco Igea of the Castilla y Leon region labelling the refusal to expand their power “unfair” and “authoritarian”.

“Thousands of people are getting sick every day, thousands of people will die,” he told public radio.

By AFP's Daniel Silva

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COVID-19

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.

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