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New spike in coronavirus infections in Spain prompts wider use of Covid passport

The Basque Country has requested permission from the courts to require a vaccination certificate for people visiting bars and nightclubs as well as restaurants

Patrons wearing masks dance in Barcelona's Sala Apolo in a file photo from October.
Patrons wearing masks dance in Barcelona's Sala Apolo in a file photo from October.Albert Garcia (EL PAÍS)

With coronavirus cases on the rise in Spain, regional authorities are considering new measures to control the spread of the virus. The regions – which are in charge of their healthcare systems, Covid-19 vaccination drives and restrictions – are not yet planning any large-scale or strict measures. Instead, they are looking to introduce or extend the use of a Covid pass as a tool to curb contagion. This document certifies whether the bearer has had Covid-19 over the last six months, has tested negative for the coronavirus via a PCR or antigen test (in the past 72 hours and 48 hours, respectively), and whether they have been fully vaccinated 14 days previously.

The epidemiological situation in Spain has improved a lot since last autumn, when no one was vaccinated against Covid-19. Today, 79% of the population is fully immunized and the national 14-day incidence rate stands at 88.6 cases per 100,000. This is far from the incidence rate of 470 cases per 100,000 recorded in November 2020, and is also considered low-risk under the proposed new traffic light system. According to the latest figures, 87,745 people in Spain have died from Covid-19 since the beginning of the pandemic.

But while the incidence rate is in the low-risk threshold, the figure is rising: in the past two weeks, it has jumped 67%. While the uptick in Spain cannot be compared to the surge in contagions in other European countries, such as Belgium and Austria, where the incidence rate exceeds 1,000 cases per 100,000, in some Spanish regions the incidence rate is more than double the national average.

In Spain’s Basque Country, for example, the incidence rate is 188 cases per 100,000 – nearly twice the average of 88.6. In a bid to contain the spread, Basque regional authorities have asked the courts to authorize the use of the Covid certificate as a condition of entry in bars, restaurants, nightlife venues and music and dance events. Gotzone Sagardui, the Basque regional health chief, said the measure had been requested with “the greatest respect and trust,” adding that the region was aiming to prevent the situation from worsening.

The Basque government has also applied new restrictions to municipalities where the 14-day incidence rate exceeds 150 cases per 100,000. In these areas, events will only be allowed to go ahead if coronavirus safety measures can be guaranteed. These activities must also increase space for the public to prevent crowding, establish specific paths to allow people to move from one place to another in an orderly manner, and set aside areas specifically for the sale and consumption of food and drink. Where possible, these events must be organized outdoors.

It makes certain sense with respect to encouraging vaccination, but not when it comes to cutting chains of transmission
Epidemiologist Salvador Peiró

The regional government in neighboring Navarre, where the incidence rate is 203 cases per 100,000, is also considering whether to request court authorization to introduce a Covid passport and is holding meetings with sectors that would be affected by the measure.

In Galicia, a Covid pass is already required in order to enter nighttime venues. The region, however, is considering asking the Galician High Court to authorize its use in more situations. Specifically, the regional government wants visitors and helpers of hospital patients to be required to present the certificate or a negative Covid-19 test. It also wants health workers to show the pass, or failing that, for staff to be tested for Covid-19 every 15 days.

Like in Galicia, a Covid certificate is also already a condition of entry at nighttime venues in Catalonia. But the region is now considering making it a requirement to enter all bars and restaurants. “It is not expected that the Covid certificate will be immediately introduced beyond the nightlife sector, although if new measures have to be taken, it will be extended to other areas,” said Patrícia Plaja, the spokesperson of the Catalan government, on Tuesday. The proposal has been met with resignation and acceptance by the region’s hospitality industry, which argues it is preferable to putting limits on opening hours and capacity. “We’ll back applying the certificate if nothing else is required of us,” Daniel Brasé, the director of the Fihr hospitality association, told EL PAÍS. If the region decides to widen the use of the Covid pass, it will need to seek authorization from the Catalan High Court.

Meanwhile in Valencia, the regional government is reviewing whether to introduce a Covid pass in certain spaces. The main question is whether the certificate should be required just in nightlife venues, or should also be mandatory in restaurants, bars, cinemas and theaters, reports Ferran Bono. The premier of Galicia, Ximo Puig of the Socialist Party (PSOE), said on Tuesday that the region’s legal advisors are studying the legal process to introduce the measure, and will speak with the affected sectors once the lawyers have finalized their report.

Given Spain is no longer under a state of alarm, regional authorities do not have a legal framework to introduce restrictions that affect fundamental rights, such as freedom of movement. As such, measures such as the requirement to present a Covid pass to enter certain spaces must be approved by the courts. But Spain’s lower courts often reach different rulings on the matter. In Catalonia, for example, the Covid pass was approved, while in Aragón and Andalusia it was struck down. If the measure is not authorized by the lower court, the region can appeal to the Supreme Court.

Doubts over effectiveness of Covid pass

Health experts who spoke to EL PAÍS believe the introduction and widened use of a Covid pass may encourage the unvaccinated to get immunized against Covid-19, but do not think it will significantly reduce contagions.

“It’s a measure from governments to make it look like they’re doing something,” said Salvador Peiró, an epidemiologist from Valencia’s Foundation to Foster Health and Biomedical Investigation (Fisabio). “It could give a false sense of security. It makes certain sense with respect to encouraging vaccination, but not when it comes to cutting chains of transmission. The vaccinated may curb transmission a bit, but they can still get infected and infect others.”

Daniel López-Acuña, former director of emergencies at the World Health Organization (WHO), agreed that the measure was not enough to bring down cases. “The regions may encourage this idea, and it is not a bad one, although it is not going to add much more nor will it be a determining factor to eliminate contagions.” He believes it would be more effective for the regions to reintroduce restrictions on the capacity and opening hours of hospitality establishments. “We cannot lower our guard with public health measures, such as early detection, tracking and diagnostic testing,” he said. “We have to close in on the outbreaks because if we move to community transmission, restrictions will have to return.”

Peiró also thinks that more focus should be placed on the use of face masks, ventilation and social distancing in indoor spaces – measures which “have not been lifted, but are not being met.”

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