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‘Let’s not lower our guard,’ Spain’s PM urges after street parties mark end of curfew

Spain's government called Monday for "responsibility", insisting health restrictions were still in place, after weekend images showed people celebrating the end of a state of emergency without masks or social distancing.

'Let's not lower our guard,' Spain's PM urges after street parties mark end of curfew
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez. Photo: Jose COELHO/POOL/AFP

 “The end of the state of emergency does not mean the end of restrictions. Far from it. The virus threat still exists,” Justice Minister Juan Carlos Campo wrote in an opinion piece in El País daily.

“That’s why the authorities will continue to take action and the public must keep on behaving responsibly.”

After more than six months of curfews and a ban on travel between Spain’s 17 regions under a state of emergency which was imposed in late October, Spaniards were afforded new freedoms when the measure expired in the early hours of Sunday.

As the deadline passed, crowds of revellers hit the streets of Madrid, Barcelona and other cities, many not wearing masks or social distancing. The images were splashed across Monday’s front pages, sparking much debate.

Asked about the images during an official visit to Greece, Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez warned against “lowering our guard”.

“Vaccination is progressing well, with very positive results” but “the virus continues to circulate and we must maintain barriers,” he said.

With nearly 79,000 deaths and more than 3.5 million infections, Spain has been badly hit by the pandemic and the images triggered a backlash against Sánchez’s left-wing government.

“Sánchez bears sole responsibility for these gatherings,” fumed opposition leader Pablo Casado who heads the right-wing Popular Party, accusing the government of not having a backup plan after the restrictions ended.

“With Sánchez, we’ve gone from a state of emergency to a state of chaos.”


Photo:GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP

 

Right-wing grumbling

Although the Madrid region’s right-wing rulers have repeatedly refused to impose tight restrictions on the local economy, letting bars and restaurants open even when virus cases were rife, they were quick to round on Sánchez.

“Freedom isn’t about having drinking parties in the street,” chided Madrid’s PP mayor Jose Luis Martinez Almeida.

“The central government just wasn’t prepared,” grumbled Juan Manuel Moreno, another PP leader who runs the southern Andalusia region, demanding “effective tools” and inter-regional coordination to manage the public health crisis.

Despite the outcry, the administration in Madrid — where hardliner Isabel Díaz Ayuso was re-elected last week by a landslide — blamed the revelry on just a handful of miscreants.

“We can’t lock up seven million people because of a few hundred youngsters,” said Enrique López, the region’s top justice official.

Madrid regional president Isabel Díaz Ayuso. Photo: OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP

 A regional lottery? 

In his editorial, the justice minister insisted there were sufficient provisions within the law “to manage the pandemic in its current state,” noting that 28 percent of the population had already received a first dose of the vaccine.

The regions can still limit the opening hours of shops, bars and restaurants as well as their capacity, but if they want to reimpose a curfew
or close the regional borders, they will need court approval.

In tourist hotspots such as the Balearic Islands or the eastern Valencia region, regional authorities have already received court approval to keep their curfew in place.

On the other hand, in the Canary Islands and the northern Basque Country region, the courts have overturned a request to maintain the curfew.

The Canary Islands have said they will appeal the decision to Spain’s Supreme Court, a measure put in place by the government as backup for regional authorities whose requests are halted locally.

And in such cases, Spain’s top court will move “to unify the criteria used to ratify or deny health measures,” Campos wrote.

“If there is a disparity of criteria, it should be our top court that sets the common standard for the whole country.”

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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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