CORONAVIRUS

Spain warns of ‘difficult weeks ahead’ amid surge in Covid-19 cases

Health Minister Salvador Illa has called on the public to limit social contact and reduce mobility in a bid to curb contagions

Health Minister Salvador Illa at a press conference on Friday.
Health Minister Salvador Illa at a press conference on Friday.J.J. Guillén / EFE

The Spanish government warned on Friday of “difficult weeks ahead” as coronavirus cases in the country continue to rise. “The data is bad. The incidence rate, the pressure on hospitals, the positivity rate of PCR tests and the number of deaths are rising. The evolution of the pandemic is worsening,” said Health Minister Salvador Illa at a press conference on Friday.

“Difficult weeks are ahead. We already know what we have to do: limit social contacts and reduce mobility as much as possible. They are the two key tools to lowering contagions,” said Illa.

For weeks, the epidemiological situation in Spain has been worsening. According to the Health Ministry report released on Thursday, the 14-day cumulative number of cases per 100,000 has risen to 321 – the highest figure since the end of November.

Illa underscored that the vaccines are free and not mandatory, “but we hope that people who receive the call will do it”

Since then, contagions have been steadily rising, with spikes detected after long weekends in early December and over the Christmas holiday period. In Extremadura, the Balearic Islands, Madrid and Catalonia, the incidence rate is now more than 400 – well above the 250-threshold considered to indicate a situation of extreme risk, and far exceeding the government’s goal of 25.

Illa, who described the trend as “worrying,” called on citizens to follow the new measures introduced in the regions. Many coronavirus restrictions were eased over the holiday period to allow people to visit family for Christmas. But with the festive season over, regional governments have introduced new rules aimed at curbing the spread of the disease. “The regions are taking proportionate measures” to stop transmission, said Illa, who added that respect for these limits on social gatherings “will bring down the surge in cases.”

Nearly all of Spain’s 17 regions have announced new restrictions: Castilla y León has extended its perimetral lockdown until May, Murcia has confined three of its largest cities, and Extremadura has closed bars and restaurants in its provincial capitals.

Vaccination campaign at “acceptable speed”

With respect to criticism over the slow rollout of the coronavirus vaccine in some regions, Illa said: “It is gathering an acceptable speed.” Asturias has administered 100% of the vaccines it received in the first shipment, and is now at 54% following a second delivery this week. But in Madrid the figure is currently 5.4% and in Cantabria it is 5.1%.

“This has to continue improving. I have said that the vaccination drive will reach a steady pace and I am sure this is going to happen,” said Illa, who repeated that the government aims to have 70% of the population inoculated by summer.

“We are working to increase the number of doses and there are another two vaccines that are being evaluated [one from Janssen and one from Oxford University and AstraZeneca]. We hope that [between now and summer] more vaccines will be approved,” said Illa.

The health minister said on Thursday that Spain was set to receive 600,000 doses of the coronavirus vaccine developed by Moderna. On Friday, the European Commission also announced that it had purchased another 200 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine, with an option for 100 million more.

Speaking on Friday, Illa underscored that the vaccines are free and not mandatory, “but we hope that people who receive the call will do it.”

Calls for resignation

In the meantime, Illa is facing growing calls to step down as health minister over his nomination to be the Catalan branch of the Socialist Party’s (PSC) candidate for regional premier at the upcoming elections in Catalonia, due to be held on February 14.

Since December 30, when it was formally announced that Illa would replace Miquel Iceta as PSC’s candidate, opposition leaders have been demanding that he step down from his role as health minister. The argument is that he cannot effectively address the pandemic, if he is also planning an election campaign.

Alejandro Fernández, the candidate for the conservative Popular Party (PP), said it is evident that Illa is using his public position to conduct political campaigning. “You cannot use public resources, media resources, to campaign. The person in charge of Spaniards’ health should be doing that job full-time,” he said.

The leader of the liberal party Ciudadanos (Citizens), Inés Arrimadas, said on Thursday that Illa “is more concerned with saving votes for the PSC than with saving lives from the pandemic in Spain.”

lla has insisted that he plans to stay in his role “until the last minute, and the day that the election campaign starts, I will stop. I am focused on my responsibilities and on dealing with the rise in cases, and I will fulfil my responsibilities until the last minute.”

With reporting by Camilo S. Baquero.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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