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OPINION: Ending Spain’s state of alarm in May will be a strategic error

With infection rates continuously rising since Easter, ending the state of alarm on May 9th could plunge Spain into a legal no man's land at the worst possible time, Graham Keeley writes.

OPINION: Ending Spain's state of alarm in May will be a strategic error
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has so far refused to extend the state of alarm. Photo: Lionel BONAVENTURE/AFP

In his busy schedule, does Pedro Sánchez have time to leaf through El País every day over his breakfast?

Once he has had time to get through stories about himself, what his government is or isn’t doing or the cartoons, the Spanish Prime Minister might notice a statistic which always jumps out at me every day – the contagion rate.

On the masthead of the digital edition – what most of us read these days – there is a handy ready-reckoner about which way the Covid-19 pandemic is heading here.

Today, the paper reports that over the past two weeks the number of coronavirus cases have risen by 33.1 percent.

One would have thought that this might be a wake up call for the government as we are just over two weeks away from the end of the state of emergency on May 9th.

Mr Sánchez has said he is standing by his decision, even though some regions like the Basque Country have called for it to be extended.

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For the past six months, Spain’s 17 regional governments have had the power to limit citizens’ fundamental rights by introducing night time curfews, restricting the movement of citizens and ordering the closure of businesses – without any possible legal comeback in the courts.

Immunologists and legal experts now fear that without this legal measure, it will leave the regional authorities in a kind of legal limbo which will harm efforts to bring the pandemic under control.

Iñigo Urkullu, the president of the Basque Country, asked Mr Sánchez to extend the state of alarm, saying without this measure regions will be without the “working capacity” or “legal guarantees” to adopt the necessary measures to curb the pandemic.

Mr Urkullu was referring to measures like the night time curfew, restrictions on mobility and bans on social gatherings.

Rafael Bengoa, a former World Health Organisation health systems director and now the co-director of the Institute for the Health and Strategy in Bilbao, said it was an error to plunge Spain into a legal no man’s land.

People sit at a terrace bar in the northern Spanish Basque city of San Sebastian. Photo: ANDER GILLENEA/AFP

Since the Easter holiday, cases have been rising. The 14-day coronavirus contagion rate stood at 232 coronavirus cases per 100,000 of population on Thursday, according to data from the Health Ministry. Before the holiday, the figure had fallen to 128 during mid March.

“To end the state of emergency in May with a very high level of Covid-19 is a strategic error. The vaccines are beginning to have an impact but it will not be sufficient by May,” Professor Bengoa told The Local.

“Many countries like Germany and the US are centralising the final stages of pandemic control and vaccination. Plus, with the rise of variants we may still get a nasty surprise.

He added: “In public health terms it is not the moment to weaken the legal base which the regional authorities should have until September.”

The vaccination programme is slowly getting into gear but only 7.9% of the population has had both doses of any vaccine, according to the Health Ministry.

Analysts have suggested that Mr Sánchez has insisted the state of emergency will not be extended but may change his tune once the Madrid regional election is over on May 4.

The reason is the government’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis has become one of the central issues during the election campaign in the Spanish capital.

Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the maverick conservative Madrid president, has defied the left-wing government throughout the pandemic, putting the interests of business first and extending opening hours for bars and restaurants first while health workers have protested over cuts.

However, should the government go ahead and end the state of emergency, and is Spain prepared?

Alex Arenas, a viral immunologist at the University of Rovira i Virgili in Tarragona, Spain, said courts will have to make individual decisions on restrictions or curfews.

“The normal thing would be to finish the state of alarm but this should be accompanied by introducing more controls like rapid and frequent tests for Covid-19 and more tests to identify variants of the virus. But none of this seems to be up and running right now,” he said.

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Member comments

  1. The terms “contagion-” or “infection-” rates should not be used in arguing that the easing of restrictions is a mistake.
    The error in this article is in assuming “cases” are people who are ill but mostly they have simply had a positive test result. If they are asymptomatic they are not infectious. To state, as Professor Bengoa does, that there is a “very high-level of Covid-19” is really misleading because there is nothing of the sort. It is right and proper that the population of Spain should at last be allowed to live instead of just surviving.

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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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