Authorities and health experts in Spain have called for prudence and responsibility amid a surge in cases among young people who are still waiting to be vaccinated after more than 1,000 Covid cases across the country were traced back to an end-of-year school trip to Mallorca.
Although more than a third of Spain’s 47 million people have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, case numbers have been rising over recent days – most notably among younger people still waiting to get their shots.
On Wednesday evening, the number of cases per 100,000 people across Spain over the past fortnight stood at 117.7, up from 92.57 the previous week. However, the number of cases among those aged 12-19 was 287.8 per 100,00 – up 44 on the previous day – while the proportion among those aged 20-29 was 293.3 (up 42).
“We’re at a stage of the pandemic when we’re getting closer and closer to the end, but we can’t let our guard down,” the health minister, Carolina Darias, said on Wednesday evening. “We have to follow the rules.”
Darias said the vaccine programme remained “the most powerful weapon we have”, adding that case numbers would come down among younger people once they began to be vaccinated.
Spain’s self-governing regions, which run their own health systems, have already begun accelerating their plans to vaccinate the under-30s and are aiming to begin offering them jabs this month. The government says the vaccination programme has reached “cruising speed” and is on track to reach its target of having 70% of the population vaccinated by the end of the summer.
But efforts have been complicated by the arrival of variants of the virus and by the Mallorca outbreak, which has infected at least 1,176 people and left 4,796 in quarantine across Spain. On Thursday, about 170 students who had tested negative after being confined to a hotel on the Balearic island since last Saturday were allowed to begin their journey home. Another 70 students remain in quarantine in the hotel.
“These are important figures that demand our attention,” Spain’s health emergencies chief, Fernando Simón, said earlier this week. “We need to be very clear that it’s the unvaccinated groups that are at greatest risk.”
Rafael Bengoa, a co-director of the Institute for Health and Strategy in Bilbao and a former health systems director at the WHO, said events in Mallorca and elsewhere had been completely predictable.
“You have the end of school; the need of young people to go partying; the virus still around, and unvaccinated people from 16-30,” he said. “It’s the perfect combination of factors but it’s perfectly predictable.”
Bengoa said such large gatherings, together with the presence of the Alpha and Delta variants, would inevitably lead to spikes in cases: “They should have said: ‘You can organise these events, but wait until September or October. That’s when you’ll be able to have you big party’.”
He warned that the conviviality and many small fiestas of the Spanish summer holiday season were also bound to fuel a rise in transmission. The country recorded a second wave of the virus last autumn after the country’s strict, three-month lockdown was lifted during summer and people rushed to get back to their former lives.
Bengoa, who is also a former health minister in the Basque regional government, said mixed messaging from Spain’s autonomous regional authorities – and a general yearning to get back to normal – would only compound the situation.
“The curve is going back up and it’s not only related to one super-spreader event in Mallorca,” he said.
“People are beginning to relax and there’s a lot of complacency because the signals from the administrations are that we’re now beginning to de-escalate. They’re sending signals of normality while we’re still very far away from anything that looks like herd immunity.”
Bengoa said the new variants circulating in Spain would complicate efforts to contain Covid, adding: “Until the end of September, when we’ve reached all these age groups with vaccination, I don’t think regional governments should continue saying: ‘Let’s go back to normal.’”