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Spain’s Health Minister quits in order to run for regional Catalan elections

Spain's Health Minister Salvador Illa will leave his job on Tuesday to run for the regional Catalan elections scheduled on February 14th, the Prime Minister’s office confirmed on Monday.

Spain's Health Minister quits in order to run for regional Catalan elections
Photo: AFP

“Salvador Illa starts today his last 24 hours at the helm of the ministry,” the statement said. “Tomorrow Tuesday will be his last cabinet meeting and his replacement will be disclosed.”

Illa has been the face of Spain's battle against coronavirus after being appointed health minister in the government of Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, which came into power a year ago. 

He gained visibility for coordinating the fight against the virus, with near-daily TV appearances to update the nation on the situation.

The 54-year-old, who hails from the northeastern Catalonia region, will run at the head of the Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSC), the local branch of Sanchez's Socialist party, when regional elections take place on February 14th.

There was no official word on who would replace Illa, but media reports point to Carolina Darias, who is currently minister for territorial policy and civil service as a strong contendor.   

Darias has worked closely with Illa and the regions, which are responsible for managing their own health policy, throughout the pandemic.   

In a statement, the Socialist Party hailed Illa's “tireless and crucial

Illa's candidature came as a surprise when it was announced in December after Miquel Iceta, who headed the
list in Catalonia, decided to step back.

The vote, Catalonia's fifth election in 10 years, is being held a year ahead of schedule because the region's separatist leader Quim Torra was barred last year by the courts from holding public office.

Bitter divide

The Socialists are hoping Illa will improve their showing in the elections after only securing 17 of the regional parliament's 135 seats during the last poll three years ago.

They are also hoping to take advantage of the bitter divide between the region's ruling separatist parties, which have been at loggerheads over strategy since the failed independence bid of October 2017.

Catalonia's 7.5 million people are split over independence, with the latest opinion poll by a Catalan polling firm showing 49.9 percent against and 45.1 percent in favour.

Polls predict the separatist parties will once again win a majority in the Catalan parliament.

But they suggest a close fight between the two ruling parties: Torra's “Together for Catalonia,” which has adopted a more hardline stance, and the leftist Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC), which has erred on the side of moderation and dialogue with Madrid.

With a serious demeanour and trademark black-framed glasses, Illa previously served as mayor of La Roca del Valles, his hometown, between 1995 and 2005, before going on to hold various posts in the regional government.

He holds a degree in philosophy and since 2016, has served as number two within the Socialist Party of Catalonia.

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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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