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COVID-19

‘It’s irresponsible’: Why Spain’s judges oppose govt’s handling of end of state of alarm

With Spain’s state of alarm set to end in a matter of days, legal associations and judges have criticised the latest legislation by the national government for ‘passing the buck' to them in terms of deciding Covid restrictions across the country from then on.

'It’s irresponsible': Why Spain's judges oppose govt's handling of end of state of alarm
Spain's King Felipe VI with Supreme Court judges in Madrid in 2020. Photo: J. J. GUILLEN/POOL/AFP

Opposition to the central government’s stance regarding the end of Spain’s estado de alarma is growing, this time among the country’s judges. 

The Spanish government approved on Tuesday a Royal Decree that gives Spain’s Supreme Court the final word on what measures limiting fundamental rights can be kept or adapted by the regions after May 9th. 

The aim of this is to avoid possible judicial disagreements between Spain’s 17 autonomous communities and two autonomous cities. 

Spain’s two main associations of judges consider that the Spanish government has acted “irresponsibly” and not legislated correctly by just ‘passing the buck’ to them.

“The national government is evading its responsibilities, which is to legislate through parliament,” María José del Barco, spokesperson for Spain’s Professional Association of the Magistracy (APM), told 20 minutos. 

“It should have given the regions enough legal powers,” she explained, recalling that Spain’s first deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo promised in 2020 to lay the legal foundations so that the state of alarm was not the only instrument with which to delegate during the pandemic. 

“Getting out of the state of alarm means giving ourselves important tools to be able to navigate any difficult situation that the pandemic causes us,” Calvo said back in May 13th 2020.

She has since gone back on her previous statement and supported her government’s latest decree, arguing that “in 99 percent of cases the courts have agreed with the region’s decisions, except for in some rare cases”.

This may not be entirely true, however. For example, when Spain’s first state of alarm was lifted during the summer of 2020, the Basque government tried to limit gatherings to six people but the regional court rejected the measure. In neighbouring Navarre, a judge allowed for the restriction to come into force.

Spain’s National Court in San Fernando de Henares near Madrid. Photo: FERNANDO VILLAR/POOL/AFP

The president of Spain’s Supreme Administrative Court César Tolosa told Spanish news agency EFE that there is a “significant deficit” that exists in Spain’s emergency health legislation.

“The judges are not here to govern,” Tolosa stated, adding that having jueces (judges) rule on which Covid restrictions are appropriate before their implementation is “not the best system”.

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However, from Monday May 10th, the restrictions in place during the state of alarm will end across Spain, including limits on social gatherings, curfews, capacity limits and more.

The modus operandi for new restrictions from then on will involve the regions having to first request judicial ratification from their regional high court of justice (TSJ). 

If the proposed restrictions are denied, regional authorities can take the matter to Spain’s Supreme Court, which will have a maximum period of five days to rule on the matter. 

The region will also have to present the appeal to the Supreme Court in the three days following its rejection by the TSJ. 

Are regional authorities still opposed to the central government’s stance?

For the most part yes. At an interterritorial Council meeting called on Wednesday following Tuesday’s Royal Decree, regional councillors largely criticised the central government’s decision of putting the management of the pandemic “unnecessarily through court”. 

Catalan councilor Alba Vergès called it “a joke” to “suddenly” end the state of alarm and that “the decision-making is transferred to the courts”.

Castilla-La Mancha councilor Jesús Fernández called for the regions to decide together which measures they wish to adopt after May 9th and to “jointly” take them to their high courts or to appeal together though the Supreme Court. 

“No court will give a region a unique ruling,” he said.

To find out more about the regions in Spain where authorities have announced they will attempt to implement restrictions after May 9th, click on the link below. 

READ MORE: The regions of Spain where restrictions are likely to remain after the state of alarm

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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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