ANALYSIS: Has Spain acted in time to stem another Covid surge before tourists arrive?

A major Covid-19 outbreak at an end-of-year student trip in Spain's Balearics has led the government to introduce the restrictions experts have been calling for to stop the spread of Covid variants. But have Spanish authorities acted quickly enough to save the summer?

ANALYSIS: Has Spain acted in time to stem another Covid surge before tourists arrive?
A health worker arrives at an hotel where students who had contact with COVID-19 patients are quarantined in Palma de Mallorca on June 29, 2021. Photo: Jaime Reina/AFP

Parents of students who have been ordered to isolate after an outbreak of Covid-19 in Mallorca have complained their children have been ‘kidnapped’.

Spanish newspapers like El Mundo have carried stories showing students hanging flags from balconies saying ‘We are negative, we want to leave.’

Three students have made a dash for it and escaped from a hotel in Palma, the capital of the biggest Balearic island, and are currently being sought by police.

Spanish media have reported that those students stuck in the hotels have used this as an excuse to carry on the party.

READ MORE: Mallorca student trip sparks huge Covid-19 cluster in Spain

What was originally a chance for hundreds of young Spaniards to escape after months of cramming for examinations for a relaxing break has turned into a national drama.

More than 1,100 students and some tourists on the island have tested positive for Covid-19 and more than 5,000 have been ordered to spend ten days in isolation, according to officials.

An investigation by health authorities in Mallorca is now underway to try to find out if any of the venues where the students were partying broke Covid-19 restrictions.

Authorities in the island will be hoping that they have caught this outbreak in time – days before the influx of British tourists who are expected to descend on the Balearic Islands this week.

The UK government put the islands on its travel green list from June 30th which means British holidaymakers do not have to go into quarantine on return.

“We will not allow the irresponsibility of a few to put in danger the efforts of many,” tweeted Francina Armengol, the president of the Balearic Islands’ government.

Since the Balearics were put on the green list, authorities in the islands have been calling on the Spanish government to toughen restrictions on visitors from the UK.

Last month, Madrid dispensed with all restrictions for British tourists.

Two quarantined students who had contact with COVID-19 patients wave to the cameraman from their hotel balcony in Mallorca. Photo by JAIME REINA / AFP

Now, with an Covid-19 outbreak in Mallorca, the Spanish Prime Minister had no choice but to act.

Sánchez told radio network Cadena SER that UK travellers must show proof they were fully vaccinated or have proof of a negative PCR test taken 72 hours before arriving.

“This shows that the government has listened to our calls for stricter restrictions,” said Xavier Pascuet, director of tourism for Calvia Council, which includes Magaluf, one of Mallorca’s most popular resorts with young British tourists.

Pascuet was by far a lone voice.

María Frontera, president of the Mallorca Federation of Hoteliers, had also called on the Spanish government to bring in more restrictions when the UK put the Balearic Islands on its ‘green list’.

“We have also called for extra controls at the airports to avoid them from becoming overwhelmed when tourists start to arrive and to guarantee health standards are preserved,” she said.

The Balearic Islands, where tourism accounts for about 35 per cent of GDP, had been desperate to convince the UK government that it was a safe destination.

Currently its 14-day coronavirus contagion rate is 69.82 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, according to Spanish Health Ministry data released on Monday, compared to the national figure of 100.86.

Sources within the Spanish government said Madrid had been urging the UK government for some time to have a re-think about classifying the Balearic and Canary islands separately from mainland Spain, where contagion rates are higher.

Tourists walk on the promenade at Magaluf Beach in Calvia,. British holidaymakers heading to the Balearic Islands will need to show a negative PCR test or proof of vaccination due to a rise in UK Covid infections, Spain said, reversing a free-entry policy. (Photo by JAIME REINA / AFP)

Analysts believed that Spain’s coalition government had acted in time.

Rafael Bengoa, a former director of the World Health Organization and adviser to the U.S. government on public health, said: “The decision not to have any restrictions for UK visitors (last month) was surprising to say the least considering that at that time the Delta variant was close to 90 percent in the UK.

“Thankfully, damage control was done by the UK government which required visitors to quarantine on return.

“The establishment of restrictions by Spain for UK visitors is late but necessary in public health terms.”

“I think the measures that the Spanish government has taken are sufficient. There is a high level of vaccination rate among the British,” Fernando Rodriguez Artalejo, a professor of preventive medicine at the Autonomous University of Madrid, told The Local.

“What I do not think is reasonable is the idea of making tourists go into quarantine when they come to Spain.”

Professor Artalejo was referring to the suggestion by Angela Merkel to force tourists across Europe to undergo quarantine on arrival.

The idea has split European Union partners, with Spain so far resisting the temptation to impose a measure which would decimate its tourism season once more.


Coronavirus: How much is the Delta variant spreading in Spain?

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Will Spain have a sixth coronavirus wave?

While Covid infections are rising across Europe, Spain has managed to keep cases and hospitalisations low so far this autumn. But there are already signs things may be changing. 

people walk without masks on ramblas barcelona during covid times
Spain’s epidemiological situation is the most favourable in the EU and a sixth wave but will there be a sixth wave? Photo: Pau Barrena/AFP

Coronavirus cases have been rising quickly across Europe since October but not so in Spain, which has maintained one of the lowest infection, hospitalisation and death rates on the continent. 

According to prestigious medical publication The Lancet, Spain could well be on the verge of reaching herd immunity, a statement the country’s Health Minister tends to agree with.  

READ ALSO: Has Spain almost reached herd immunity?

Add the favourable epidemiological indicators to the almost 80 percent rate of full vaccination of Spain’s entire population and the immunity claim doesn’t seem so far-fetched. 

But if there’s one thing this pandemic has taught governments around the world – or should have – is to not assume Covid-19 can be eradicated after a few encouraging weeks. 

Not that Spain is letting down its guard, the general public continues to take mask wearing in indoor spaces seriously (outdoors as well even though not required in many situations) and there are still some regional restrictions in place. 

READ MORE: What Covid-19 restrictions are in place in Spain’s regions in November?

And yet, Covid infections are on the rise again, although not at the pace seen during previous waves of the virus. 

On Thursday November 4th Spain re-entered the Health Ministry’s “medium risk” category after the national fortnightly infection rate surpassed 50 cases per 100,000 people.

From Friday 5th to Monday 8th, it climbed five more points up to 58 cases per 100,000 inhabitants. 

It’s the biggest rise since last July but this shouldn’t be cause for alarm, especially as hospitalizations, ICU admissions and deaths all remain low and steady.

A closer look at the stats shows that 1.52 percent of hospital beds across the country are currently occupied by Covid patients, 4.41 percent in the case of ICU beds. 

Daily Covid deaths in October were under 20 a day, the lowest rate since August 2020. 

With all this in mind, is a sixth wave of the coronavirus in Spain at all likely?

According to a study by the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington, Spain will have a sixth wave.

The Seattle-based research group predicts an increase in infections in Spain from the second half of November, which will skyrocket in December reaching the highest peak towards the end of the year. 

The country would reportedly need about 24,000 beds for Covid patients (4,550 for critical ones) and there would be almost 2,000 deaths. 

Increased social interactions would mean that on December 30th alone, daily Covid infections in Spain could reach 92,000, the study claims. 

If restrictions were tightened ahead of the holiday period, including the use of face masks, the sixth wave’s peak wouldn’t be as great, IHME states

It’s worth noting that the IHME wrongly predicted that Spain wouldn’t be affected by a fifth wave whereas it ended up causing more than a million infections and 5,000 deaths. 

two elderly women in san sebastian during covid times
The vaccination rate among over 70s in Spain is almost 100 percent. Photo: Ander Guillenea/AFP

The latest message from Spain’s Health Minister Carolina Darias is that currently “the virus is cornered” in the country, whilst admitting that there was a slight rise in cases. 

“I do not know if there will be a sixth wave, but first we must remember that immunisation is not complete in all patients despite vaccinations,” Dr. José Polo , president of the Spanish Society of Primary Care Physicians (Semergen), told El Periódico de España

“That’s because 100 percent effectiveness doesn’t exist in any drug, or in any medicine”.

Despite having one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, Spain still has around 4.2 million eligible people who haven’t been vaccinated, mostly people aged 20 to 40. 

The majority of Covid hospitalisations across Spain are patients who have not been vaccinated: 90 percent in the Basque Country, 70 percent in Catalonia and 60 percent in Andalusia.

Among Covid ICU patients, 90 percent of people in critical condition across all regions are unvaccinated. 

“Although there are many people vaccinated in Spain, there will be an increase in cases because we know how the virus is transmitted and when the cold comes and the evenings are darker we will tend to go indoors, and the virus spreads there,” Cesar Carballo, Vice President of the Spanish Society of Emergency Medicine of Madrid, told La Sexta news.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has already warned that Europe is at a  “critical point of regrowth”  and that it has once again become the “epicentre”  of the pandemic, due to the generalised spike in cases in recent weeks.

Does that mean that Spain’s daily infections won’t be in the thousands again as winter nears? Or that regional governments won’t reintroduce Covid measures ahead of Christmas to prevent this from happening?

Nothing is for certain, but as things stand Spain’s epidemiological situation is the most favourable in the EU and a sixth wave seems unlikely, but not impossible.

The Spanish government continues to push ahead with its vaccination campaign, reopening its vaccination centres, administering booster shots to its most vulnerable and considering vaccinating under 12s to meet an immunity target of 90 percent.