FOCUS: How student holidays in Mallorca turned into a Covid super spreader in Spain

Spain is grappling with growing fallout from end-of-year student holidays to Majorca that have led within a week to more than 1,000 people being infected nationwide with Covid-19 and thousands more quarantined.

FOCUS: How student holidays in Mallorca turned into a Covid super spreader in Spain
Students stand on balconies of an hotel where students who had contact with COVID-19 patients are quarantined in Palma de Mallorca on June 29, 2021. - An end-of-year student trip to Spain's Balearic Islands has sparked a major coronavirus cluster with hundreds of confirmed cases and thousands of young people in quarantine across the country. (Photo by JAIME REINA / AFP)

News media headlining the events have reported that angry parents are demanding the release of around 250 young people who have been confined to a hotel on the Mediterranean island.

It all started last week when hundreds of young people throughout Spain tested positive for Covid-19 after they returned from a week’s holiday to Majorca to celebrate the end of exams.

The authorities said they are infected with the Alpha strain first detected in the United Kingdom.

The health ministry reported Monday that at least 1,167 people have been infected and 4,796 have been forced to quarantine.

A young man from the eastern city of Valencia has been in intensive care since Monday, Spanish media reported.

‘Breeding ground’ 

Fernando Simon, the government’s chief epidemiologist, called the trips to Majorca the “ideal breeding ground to facilitate a spread with multiple origins and big events without control”.

At least 11 regions of the country have detected cases linked to the trip.

In the Madrid region alone, the authorities reported on Wednesday 778 positive cases and more than 2,886 others forced to self isolate.

Most of the young people did not respect requirements to wear masks during their stay in several hotels on the Mediterranean island, they said.

On Wednesday, 49 of the 86 people travelling from Majorca tested positive for the virus when they landed at Santiago de Compostela airport in northwest Spain, including several who had taken part in the end-of-year student trips, the regional government of Galicia said.

All the passengers on the flight were now in quarantine.

Young men wave from balconies of an hotel where they are quarantined. Photo by JAIME REINA / AFP

– ‘We want out’ –

In Palma de Majorca, several hundred young people have been confined to their hotel rooms, the regional government said.

Dubbed “Hotel Covid” the Palma Bellver is hosting at least 232 students who “have a direct or indirect link with the student trip to Majorca”, the local government said Tuesday.

A quarter of them have tested positive for Covid-19, it added.

The media is running widely with images of these young people holed up in the seafront hotel shouting “we’re negative, we want out”, or sending the same message written on their towels on their balconies.

Coming under fire are both the authorities and the young people who have not yet been vaccinated and are accused of being reckless.

Police told AFP that they have intervened several times in response to neighbours complaining of students blasting their music, throwing projectiles onto public spaces or hoisting alcohol to the balconies using sheets.

A number of parents have gone to the courts in a bid to remove their children from the quarantine.

Despite the opposition of prosecutors, on Wednesday a judge ordered that students testing negative should have their confinement lifted.

The row comes as Spain sees an improvement in its fight against Covid-19 with a broad vaccination drive.

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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.