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Spanish high court strikes down Madrid coronavirus curbs

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A Spanish court has struck down coronavirus curbs on entering and leaving Madrid, plunging the central government’s strategy in the country’s pandemic hotspot into chaos.

The High Court for the Madrid region ruled the government measures, which came into force on Friday after a prolonged dispute between prime minister Pedro Sánchez’s leftwing coalition and the regional administration, violated fundamental rights and lacked a sufficient legal basis. 

The rules had banned people from entering and exiting the capital without good cause — such as for work or education — although offenders were not fined while the court decision was pending.

In a sign of the confusion left in the ruling’s wake, the centre-right regional administration, which took Mr Sánchez’s government to court over the issue, said it was dropping further legal action and issued a plea for Madrileños not to leave the city.

Spain is celebrating its national day on Monday and many people would normally spend the long weekend outside the capital.

“No one knows what the rules are, no one knows what’s happening,” said Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the head of the regional administration, who asked the national government to agree by Friday “new measures that are sensible, fair and well thought out”.

Responding to the judgment, Salvador Illa, Spain’s health minister, said the government would “take the decisions that best protect health”.

Although both Ms Díaz Ayuso’s People’s Party, and the hard-right Vox party called for his immediate resignation, the national and regional governments were meeting on Thursday evening to discuss the next steps.

The regional administration had argued that the restrictions were excessive and arbitrary and that there was no reason to impose them on the city as a whole. It also contended that measures the Madrid region had itself previously put in place to restrict movement in and out of some of the most infected districts had been more effective.

The government countered that Madrid as a whole had dangerous rates of infection — at present more than twice the figure for Spain overall — and that the perimeter of the city needed to be secured to prevent infections spreading.

The disarray in Madrid contrasts with Paris and Brussels — cities with comparable infection rates, where authorities have ordered the closure of bars and cafés for two weeks and one month respectively. But tension between Spain’s national and regional governments has complicated the country’s response to the pandemic since case numbers exploded in March.

Madrid’s regional president Isabel Díaz Ayuso, right, asked the national government to agree ‘new measures that are sensible, fair and well thought out’ © Victor Lerena/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

“Spain has not updated its legislation to allow lockdowns to be imposed without invoking emergency powers,” said Pablo Simón, professor of politics at Madrid’s Carlos III University. “That means it is judges who decide whether such measures are justified and whether they violate constitutional rights — and judges can be inconsistent or disagree with each other. The result is legal chaos.”

In recent days, the number of new infections in Madrid has dipped, which the regional government says is an indication that its previous measures had been working.

But with 37,000 infections over the past two weeks, and a rate of 564 cases per 100,000 of population in that time, the region of 6.6m remains one of the most afflicted in Europe.

After being the worst affected European country for weeks, Spain now has the second-highest rate of coronavirus infections on the continent, following the Czech Republic. Infection rates in the Netherlands are also approaching Spanish levels, as are, to a lesser extent, those in France and Belgium.



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FT 1000: Europe’s Fastest Growing Companies

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The latest annual ranking of businesses by revenue growth. Explore the 2021 list here — the full report including in-depth analysis and case studies will be published on March 22



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EU plans digital vaccine passports to boost travel

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Brussels is to propose a personal electronic coronavirus vaccination certificate in an effort to boost travel around the EU once the bloc’s sluggish immunisation drive gathers pace.

Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, said on Monday the planned “Digital Green Pass” would provide proof of inoculation, test results of those not yet jabbed, and information on the holder’s recovery if they had previously had the disease.

“The Digital Green Pass should facilitate Europeans‘ lives,” von der Leyen wrote in a tweet on Monday. “The aim is to gradually enable them to move safely in the European Union or abroad — for work or tourism.”

The plan, expected to be outlined this month, is a response to a push by Greece and some other EU member states to introduce EU “vaccination passports” to help revive the region’s devastated travel industry and wider economy. 

But the commission’s proposed measures will be closely scrutinised over concerns including privacy, the chance that even inoculated people can spread Covid-19, and possible discrimination against those who have not had the opportunity to be immunised.

In an immediate sign of potential opposition, Sophie Wilmès, Belgium’s foreign minister, raised concerns about the plan. She said that while the idea of a standardised European digital document to gather the details outlined by von der Leyen was a good one, the decision to style it a “pass” was “confusing”. 

“For Belgium, there is no question of linking vaccination to the freedom of movement around Europe,” Wilmès wrote in a tweet. “Respect for the principle of non-discrimination is more fundamental than ever since vaccination is not compulsory and access to the vaccine is not yet generalised.”

The travel sector tentatively welcomed the news of Europe-wide vaccine certification as a way to rebuild confidence ahead of the crucial summer season, but warned that regular and rapid testing was a more efficient and immediate way to allow the industry to restart.

Fritz Joussen, chief executive of Tui, Europe’s largest tour operator, said “with a uniform EU certificate, politicians can now create an important basis for summer travel”. But he added that testing remained “the second important building block for safe holidays” while large numbers of Europeans awaited a jab.

Marco Corradino, chief executive of online travel agent Lastminute.com, said he feared the infrastructure needed would not be ready in time for the summer season: “It will not work . . . at EU level because it is too complicated and would not be in place by June.”

He suggested that bilateral deals, such as the one agreed between Greece and Israel in February to allow vaccinated citizens to travel without the need to show a negative test result, had more potential.

Vaccine passport sceptics argue it would be unfair to restrict people’s travel rights simply because they are still waiting for their turn to be jabbed. 

Gloria Guevara, CEO of the World Travel and Tourism Council, said it was important not to discriminate against less advanced countries and younger travellers, or those who simply cannot or choose not to be vaccinated. “Future travel is about a combination of measures such as comprehensive testing, mask-wearing, enhanced health and hygiene protocols as well as digital passes for specific journeys,” she added.

A European Commission target to vaccinate 70 per cent of the bloc’s 446m residents by September means many people are likely to go through summer unimmunised.

While some countries around the world have long required visitors to be vaccinated against infectious diseases such as yellow fever, a crucial difference with coronavirus is that those inoculations are available to travellers on demand. 

Questions also remain about the risk of people who have already been vaccinated passing on coronavirus if they contract the disease.

 





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EU must prepare for ‘era of pandemics’, von der Leyen says

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Europe must prepare its medical sector to cope with an “era of pandemics”, the European Commission president said, as she warned the bloc was still in its most difficult period for Covid-19 vaccine deliveries. 

Ursula von der Leyen told the Financial Times that the EU could not afford to sit still even once Covid-19 has been overcome, as she described her plans for a Europewide fast-reaction system designed to respond more quickly to emerging medical threats. 

“Europe is determined to enlarge its strength in vaccine production,” she said in a telephone interview. “It’s an era of pandemics we are entering. If you look at what has been happening over the past few years, I mean from HIV to Ebola to MERS to SARS, these were all epidemics which could be contained, but we should not think it is all over when we’ve overcome Covid-19. The risk is still there.” 

Von der Leyen last month unveiled plans for a biodefence preparedness plan called the HERA Incubator, which will combine researchers, biotech companies, manufacturers and public authorities to monitor emerging threats and work on adapting vaccines. This will become part of a Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA). 

The concept is an attempt to mirror some of the benefits conferred by America’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, which is charged with the job of responding rapidly to new health threats.

“The US has a strong advantage by having BARDA . . . this is an infrastructure Europe did not have,” von der Leyen said. “But Europe has to build up to be prepared for whatever comes, and also for the next possible pandemics. This is the HERA incubator.” 

The EU remains within its “most difficult quarter without any question” for vaccine deliveries, she said, cautioning “many, many problems” could always occur within the production process.

Looking towards the second quarter, she pointed out that a second EU contract with BioNTech/Pfizer for their vaccine would kick in, alongside the new jab from Johnson & Johnson, which is expected to be authorised in March.

In an EU summit on Thursday, von der Leyen addressed vaccine production and the threat of virus mutations after a rocky start to the year, when she was hit by complaints from politicians in member states, including Germany, about supply shortfalls. 

Von der Leyen acknowledged to the European Parliament in early February that mistakes had been made in the EU’s vaccination effort, and the campaign remains behind those of the US and UK. Among the difficulties are continued production problems at AstraZeneca’s European facilities. 

Von der Leyen said she was sticking with the EU’s target for the delivery of 300m doses in the second quarter, saying the challenge will shift from vaccine production to national rollouts. As for AstraZeneca’s shipments, she said: “I need to see the proof of the pudding . . . It’s very good that they also delivered from the rest of the world, but they have to honour their contract and we want our fair share.”

Ursula Von der Leyen says she is sticking with the EU’s target for the delivery of 300m doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine in the second quarter © Remo Casilli/Reuters

The good news for the EU is its access to mRNA technology, which is used in the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine and which scientists believe can be used to rapidly adapt to mutations, said von der Leyen. 

But she also supported French president Emmanuel Macron’s proposal to share up to 5 per cent of supplies to permit the vaccination of healthcare workers in developing countries.

“We all suffer from the fact that the scaling up was not and is not as rapid as we thought at the beginning. This has a general effect all over the world,” she said. “With production picking up I think we should never forget that only if everybody has access to vaccines will we overcome this virus.”

Von der Leyen added that the EU needed to be particularly concerned about developments in its immediate area. 

“The mutant story is worrying me the most,” she said. “When the virus is still raging in the neighbourhood, the probability that mutants will occur, that will come back, for example, to Europe, is only rising.”



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