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COVID-19

Unease and uncertainty as Spain braces to exit state of alarm

Spain is poised for a surge in internal travel after a national state of emergency ends on Sunday, a move regional governments fear weakens their hand in the fight again the pandemic.

Unease and uncertainty as Spain braces to exit state of alarm
Regional and municipal border closures will mostly end from May 9th onwards. Photo: Oscar del Pozo/AFP

Declared in October as Covid-19 infections surged, the emergency decree has provided regional authorities — which are in charge of health care — a legal framework to enforce nighttime curfews and other restrictions including a ban on non essential travel between regions.

But once the emergency situation ends on Sunday, regional governments will need local court approval to impose restrictions on social life such as caps on the size of home gatherings.

As the end of the state of emergency nears, authorities are rushing to prepare rules to keep certain restrictions in place, including limiting bar and restaurant hours.

The Balearic islands, which includes tourism hotspot Ibiza, on Thursday received court approval to limit the size of private gatherings to six people and keep its nighttime curfew in place.

Several other regions have said they will ask the courts to extend nighttime curfews but so far none have indicated they will seek to extend their ban on inter-regional travel.

That means Spaniards will be able to travel to holiday homes or to visit far-off relatives for the first time in months.

State-owned rail operator Renfe says ticket sales for next week are up 13 percent over the last week.

“I am really keen to get out of Madrid,” said Alicia Carbajosa, a 47-year-old civil servant, who plans to visit her family soon in the southern region of Andalusia for the first time this year.

Tourists have drinks at a bar terrace in Mallorca. Photo: JAIME REINA / AFP

– ‘Sufficient measures’ –

But while many Spaniards are happy about the lifting of restrictions, some politicians are accusing Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s leftist government of washing its hands on handling the health crisis and dumping the problem on Spain’s 17 regional governments.

The vice president of the conservative government in Andalusia, Juan Marin, accused

“This government has no idea what it’s like to manage,” Juan Marin, vice president of the conservative government in Andalusia, said Thursday.

However Health Minister Carolina Darias argued that the state of emergency could not remain in place “indefinitely” and said the measures available to the regions were enough to fight the virus.

Spain, one of the hardest hit nations in Europe by the pandemic with nearly 79,000 deaths and 3.5 million cases, is now in a “different” epidemiological situation and its vaccination programme is progressing rapidly, she added.

Around 27 percent of Spain’s population of 47 million people has received at least one dose of vaccine against the coronavirus, and 12 percent are fully vaccinated, according to health ministry figures.

Spain’s coronavirus incidence as measured over the past 14 days has been falling and it stands at just over 200 cases per 100,000 people, compared to 473 in France, 305 in Germany and 267 in Italy, according to an AFP tally based on official figures.

– ‘More infections’ –

To strengthen the hand of the regions, Spain’s central government passed a decree on Tuesday allowing them to appeal to the Supreme Court if a local court strikes down a proposed virus measure.

The court would then have up to five days to give its ruling.

The goal is to establish a national precedent and create a nationwide consensus over how far regions can go.

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But Salvador Macip, professor of health sciences at the Open University of Barcelona and author of the book “The great modern epidemics”, warned the situation in Spain was still unstable.

“There is alway this risk that if mobility increases there will be more infections” after the state of emergency ends, he told AFP.

“There is a sense that there can no longer be any upsurges or peaks in infections because we are vaccinating quickly and cases have fallen,” he added.

“We can’t go about our normal lives and enjoy all freedoms when people are dying.”

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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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