FOCUS: How tougher Covid restrictions are returning to Spain’s regions as cases soar

Curfews and other virus restrictions are returning to several regions of Spain as the country tries to curb a surge in more contagious Delta cases, especially among unvaccinated young people.

FOCUS: How tougher Covid restrictions are returning to Spain's regions as cases soar
Employees prepare to shut their bar for the night in Madrid. Photo: OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP

The northeastern region of Catalonia is expected to later on Wednesday ask the courts for permission to impose a nightly curfew in its hardest-hit cities, including Barcelona.

It is following in the footsteps of the neighbouring region of Valencia which has already received the green light to restore a curfew in 32 towns.

The northern region of Cantabria is also working to impose a curfew.

Catalonia, the epicentre of Spain’s jump in infections, has already in recent days ordered public activities to finish at half past midnight, and restricted gatherings to no more than 10 people.

The spike in cases in the region followed the reopening of nightclubs on June 21st and the end of the school year.

“The numbers are more than bad. They are frankly very, very bad,” said Catalonia’s public health secretary, Josep Maria Argimon.

The coronavirus infection rate for people aged 20- 29 in Catalonia has jumped to 3,311 cases per 100,000 people, compared to a national average of 437 cases among people of all ages.

READ MORE: Why does Catalonia have the highest Covid-19 infection rate in Spain and the EU?

Nearly 80,000 new infections have been diagnosed in Catalonia, a region of some 7.7 million people, in the past two weeks.

Town halls have asked for help to restrict access to beaches and parks, the site of large gatherings since Spain lifted a nationwide curfew in early May.

“What surprised us was the speed of infections… it has gone very fast,” the deputy medical director of Barcelona’s Bellvitge Hospital, Alvaro Arcocha, told AFP.

The number of Covid-19 patients at the hospital has jumped to 110 from just 20 two weeks ago.

And their average age — 44 years — is lower than in previous waves, a trend seen across Spain.

Photo by Pau BARRENA / AFP

Vaccine hopes

The country’s vaccination programme has worked through age groups, so people in their 20s and 30s are only now starting to get jabs, leaving them vulnerable to the new Delta variant.

Unlike in other waves of infections, deaths have remained low and hospital ICUs have so far not been overwhelmed with Covid-19 patients, possibly because patients are younger.

But Arocha said it was not yet certain if this would remain the case.

“We will see as we go because this changes from one day to the next,” he said.

Spain, one of Europe’s worst affected countries, recorded 13 deaths from Covid-19 on Tuesday, compared to hundreds of daily fatalities during its first wave last year.

The government is counting on its accelerating vaccination campaign to bring down infections.

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said the country was on track to have 70 percent of the population immunised against Covid-19 before the end of August, and urged young people to keep taking measures to avoid getting infected.

“We are about to reach the shore and it does not make much sense to stop rowing when we are about to arrive,” he said late Tuesday during an interview with Telecinco television.

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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.