Catalan High Court approves use of Covid passport in bars, restaurants and gyms

The measure is aimed at curbing contagions in the Spanish region, where the incidence rate has risen to 170 cases per 100,000 over 14 days

A restaurant in Barcelona in September.
A restaurant in Barcelona in September.Carles Ribas (EL PAÍS)

The Catalan High Court ruled on Thursday to approve the use of the European Union’s Digital COVID Certificate in bars, restaurants, gyms and nursing homes in Catalonia. This so-called Covid passport can be accessed in Spain via each region’s healthcare system, and certifies whether the bearer has been vaccinated against Covid-19, has recently recovered from an infection, or has been tested for the virus. The new measure is set to come into effect on Friday and be up and running on the weekend.

The Covid passport is already required in nighttime venues, music festivals and events such as weddings and banquets in the Spanish region. But with coronavirus cases on the rise, the Catalan regional government decided to ask for court approval to extend the use of the certificate to more venues, specifically: bars, restaurants, gyms and nursing homes.

“The contagion figures are rising at a worrying level for the health and proper functioning of the health system,” said Patrícia Plaja, the spokesperson of the Catalan government, on Tuesday. “Catalonia needs an extra step to prevent the health system from being overwhelmed, without applying new restrictions.” The hospitality industry, which expressed resignation ahead of the plan’s announcement, wants the Covid passport to be required in all sectors.

The court’s decision on Thursday comes as coronavirus infections continue to rise in the region. The 14-day incidence rate in Catalonia now stands at 170 cases per 100,000, compared to the national average of 149 cases. The number of consultations for coronavirus at primary healthcare centers has risen 35% in a week, with 9,000 people a day seeing a doctor. However, the reproduction rate, the so-called R number – i.e. how many other people an infected person passes the virus on to – has fallen to 1.37.

In the region’s hospitals, 569 people have been admitted for Covid-19, while 128 are in intensive care. The positivity rate, i.e. the percentage of tests that come back positive out of the total, stands at 5%. In the past 24 hours, the region recorded seven deaths due to Covid-19.

The contagion figures are rising at a worrying level for the health and proper functioning of the health system
Patrícia Plaja, spokesperson of the Catalan government

Meanwhile in schools in Catalonia, more than 20,000 students are in preventive quarantine following the detection of coronavirus cases, according to the Catalan education department. This number has risen by 4,495 in the past two days, bringing the total to 21,121. A total of 623 teaching staff and school administration workers are also in quarantine.

The upward trend in Catalonia reflects the broader rise in coronavirus contagions across Spain. On Wednesday, the national incidence rate jumped nearly 10 points to 149 cases per 100,000, according to the Spanish Health Ministry. Of Spain’s 17 regions, Navarre continues to have the highest incidence rate, with 428 cases per 100,000, followed by the Basque Country (332 cases) and Aragón (245 cases). By age group, the highest transmission rates are among the under-11s, with 233 cases per 100,000. On Thursday, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) approved a child dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children aged between 11 and five. It will now be up to Spain’s health authorities to decide whether to recommend the vaccine for this age group.

The Spanish Health Ministry reported 8,527 new cases on Wednesday, and added 38 deaths to the official toll, which now stands at 87,904. A total of 3,172 Covid-19 patients are in hospital, 168 more than on Tuesday. Pressure on ICUs also rose, with Covid-19 patients now occupying 6.13% of all beds – above the 5% low-risk threshold outlined in Spain’s new traffic light system.

With cases rising across the country, other Spanish regions – which are in charge of their healthcare systems, Covid-19 vaccination drives and coronavirus restrictions – have also made moves to introduce the Covid certificate in bars and restaurants. Navarre, Aragón and La Rioja are waiting for the measure to be approved by the courts. While in the Balearic Islands and Galicia, a Covid certificate is currently required at nighttime venues.

The regional government of Galicia is also planning to request court approval to extend the use of the Covid passport to the hospitality sector. Under the plan, which was reached following an agreement with the sector, patrons will need to present the certificate at restaurants, during all opening hours, and at bars and cafes from 9pm. Last week, the regional government also received court backing to request the certificate from hospital visitors.

A sidewalk café in Barcelona in May.
A sidewalk café in Barcelona in May.Albert Garcia

Since the central government earlier this year lifted the coronavirus state of alarm – one of the three emergency situations the administration can implement – Spain’s regions have had to seek approval from judges for any measure that impinges on fundamental rights, such as the Covid passport. The lower courts, however, often reach different verdicts.

On Monday, for example, the Basque High Court rejected the regional government’s request to introduce the Covid passport in restaurants with capacity for more than 50 patrons and nightlife venues such as nightclubs and karaoke bars. Although the request was backed by the public prosecutor, the court ruled that it was “unjustified.”

In Catalonia, the regional decision decided to widen the use of the Covid passport upon the advice of its expert committee, which argued that the measure would help combat the sensation of normality among the population. In its non-binding report, the group of experts, which is made up of 34 figures from the healthcare sector, explained that extending the use of the Covid certificate would also minimize risks of transmission in closed spaces, and limit the spread of the virus ahead of the approaching long weekend – December 6 and 8 are national holidays in Spain.

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