Spain’s COVID vaccination programme has been a relative success in Europe up to now - but the reopening of nightlife has led to a huge surge in cases amongst unprotected young people, who haven’t yet been able to get the jab.
A huge resurgence of coronavirus cases have hit Spain in recent weeks - and the young are bearing the brunt.
Despite a relatively successful vaccination campaign in the context of other European countries - Spain is nearing 50 per cent of the population fully vaccinated - other factors have conspired to send the number of new cases shooting up.
First and foremost was the “premature and dangerous” relaxation of measures in May, according to Daniel López-Acuña, a former director of Health Action in Crisis Situations at the World Health Organization.
“Since the beginning of May we had the first release of the state of emergency, then the end of curfews, then the opening of nightlife, then the end of obligatory mask wearing,” he says.
This reopening has contributed to “a false sense of security and social interaction that is not protected,” he tells Euronews, due to the fact vaccines have until now been largely unavailable for younger people.
Young people bearing the brunt of coronavirus cases
The Spanish health authorities have focused, like most countries, on getting jabs to the most vulnerable first, and then working down the age groups in order to prevent as much severe illness from COVID-19 as possible and protect the health system.
But by permitting younger people - who are more likely to be socialising in large groups and settings where COVID can easily spread - to enjoy more freedom and nightlife before they could be vaccinated, the country has seen its accumulated cases per 100,000 inhabitants over the last two weeks hit 252.
Spain’s health ministry said on Thursday that among the age group 20-29 over the last 14 days more than 800 cases per 100,000 people have been registered.
López-Acuña, who now works as an associate professor at the Andalusian School of Public Health, says this situation could have been avoided if some restrictions had stayed in place.
And he warns this level of infection among young people “is not an irrelevant episode of infection, it is a risky episode of infection”.
Scientists don’t yet know enough about the potential long-term effects of COVID-19, even in younger people, the majority of whom initially tend to only suffer mild symptoms at worst.
A minority can however result in severe cases and hospitalisations, and López-Acuña points out the spread of COVID-19 in the younger age group can lead to infections in older people who have not yet been vaccinated.
‘Necessary measures the opposite’ of what governments have done
He argues it is not only the Spanish government that has opened prematurely, before a sufficient number of people were vaccinated.
“Governments in Europe have rushed to [open] without the proper precautions taking into account the dynamic of the pandemic,” he says.
“There has been a 10 per cent increase [in cases] in Europe in the last week, so I think sometimes we have governments acting as if the virus is not being transmitted, as if we don’t have the increased presence of the highly contagious variant like the Delta variant, as if we were able to just interact freely without protection.
“And I think the measures that are necessary are just the opposite,” he says.
These necessary measures, according to López-Acuña, include shutting down nightlife again, restricting social gatherings and interactions, and public health measures such as intensifying screening for early diagnosis to catch asymptomatic cases.
Vaccination campaign a relative success
López-Acuña says the vaccination campaign in Spain has been a relative success so far, with the country doing well compared to many of its European neighbours.
Parts of Spain are now rushing to get vaccines to younger people, such as in Catalonia.
“We are late, but hopefully not too late,” says Antoni Trilla, Research Professor at the Institute for Global Health in Barcelona, and head of the Preventive Medicine and Epidemiology Unit at the Hospital Clinic of Barcelona.
He hopes enough young people will be vaccinated over July and August to stop another big spread at the start of the academic year, when many go back to schools and universities.
And he says “one good thing” is that young people are showing a great willingness to come forward for vaccinations, something reflected in other age groups in Spain.
Health systems are holding up for the time being.
While GP surgery are under high pressure with mild cases and big demand for testing and diagnosis, admissions to hospitals are increasing slowly.
“It is inevitable some people will end up in the ICU and some people may die because of the Delta variant. It’s normal for this virus. But the number of people now being admitted to hospitals we can cope with,” says Trilla.
He warns that the Delta variant - which was dominant in the UK when parts of Spain decided to allow visitors from there to enter without a test - could start to take its toll on other European countries.
“We have seen time and time again in this pandemic, the whole of the EU is moving at different speeds and in different situations.
“Now Spain is clearly under a severe wave of the Delta variant, it’s not the case in France yet, nor in Italy, but we will see how the virus behaves in different countries in the EU depending on many factors.
"We’ll have to learn about that, because we have the opportunity to see how it behaves under different situations.”
As for the response from the authorities in Spain to the surge in cases, some areas have announced the closure once again of nightlife, while other restrictions are being discussed.
And now a number of regions, including Madrid, Catalonia, and the Basque Country, are rolling out vaccines to those over the age of 16, to try to stem the spread of a disease that looks set to once again seriously impact the tourism and leisure sectors for another summer.