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Madrid regional chief hits out at Spanish government Covid measures

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The woman at the heart of the dispute over one of Europe’s coronavirus hotspots says Spain’s government is exacerbating the crisis and depicts herself as a bulwark against socialist revolutionaries in its ranks. 

To her supporters, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, head of Madrid’s regional government and perhaps the second most powerful elected official in the country, is the voice of resistance against a dangerous leftwing government running roughshod over democratic institutions and devastating the motor of the Spanish economy. 

To her detractors, the leader of the region of 6.6m people is a rightwing ideologue who has been far too slow in responding to some of the highest infection rates in Europe.

Ms Díaz Ayuso, a 41-year-old who took office last year after a career largely spent in communications for her centre-right People’s party, portrays the regional administration as one of the most important checks on what she says is an “authoritarian” central government. 

In an interview with the Financial Times, she accused Socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez and his coalition allies in the radical left Podemos grouping of shattering “the consensus of the two Spains [of left and right]” and trying to transform the country into a place where only “one form of thinking is allowed”.

The clash comes just three weeks after Mr Sánchez and Ms Díaz Ayuso held a summit-style meeting and promised to work with each other. It highlights how polarised politics have overwhelmed public health messaging; the different weights that Spain’s left and right give to resuming economic activity; and how the country’s complicated decentralised system of government has struggled to contend with the crisis.

“It is more of a political problem, not a health one, because Madrid was doing things well,” Ms Diaz Ayuso said of the tensions over coronavirus curbs in her region, half of whose inhabitants live in the capital city. 

“Just when we had applied sensible and fair measures that were showing results, the Spanish government rapidly decided to change its discourse and impose a very different model of lockdown that is very bad for the economy, does not solve the problem and has been rejected by the courts.”

Mr Sánchez’s government contends that it had no alternative but to use emergency powers to impose a ban on people entering and leaving the capital city and nine nearby municipalities — because of what it depicts as the inadequacies of Ms Díaz Ayuso’s measures in a region that for weeks was the most infected in Europe.

While the infection rate has fallen significantly in Madrid since the end of last month, it remains twice the average in Spain, itself one of the worst affected countries in Europe.

Mr Sánchez’s officials add that they had to act quickly after a court had struck down its previous controls just ahead of a holiday weekend. 

“The business of a vital region like Madrid, with 6.6m citizens, which is also the economic motor of the country, can’t be decided in 12 hours under pressure,” countered Ms Díaz Ayuso. “We needed time to take such a serious decision. We had asked the government for more time to talk about the measures we were applying in Madrid, which were correct and working well.”

Pedro Sánchez and Isabel Díaz Ayuso talk before a ceremony to mark Spain’s National day in the Spanish capital on Monday © Kiko Huesca/POOL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Madrid has been confronting a second wave now engulfing many other cities on the continent © Paul White/AP

Those measures, no longer in force, applied to around 1m of the region’s inhabitants, who account for roughly a quarter of its cases, rather than to the entire city.

Ms Díaz Ayuso says the success of her neighbourhood-level restrictions can be seen in the recent fall in infections — down to around 540 per 100,000 of population over the past two weeks compared with more than 780 at the end of September. Others link the decline in infections to moves by the region to stop carrying out diagnostic tests on close contacts of infected people.

The Madrid chief also makes clear her deep opposition — on largely economic grounds — to broad-brush restrictions, signalling her reluctance even to reinstate her own neighbourhood curbs on top of Mr Sánchez’s perimeter controls.

“I don’t want to impose measures while there are alternative options,” she said. “So we have to look for intermediate solutions: protect the vulnerable, locate the infectious . . . but for everyone else to go out, subject to controls.” Her staff says that each week that the central government emergency restrictions are in force will cost the region 18,000 jobs and €750m.

In May, her administration took the national government to court to get out of the lockdown faster. In July and August, after the end of the first period of emergency rule, Madrid, like other regions, tried to repair much of the economic damage and return to normal life as much as possible. But by September 1 the region had by far the worst infection rates in Spain.

Ms Díaz Ayuso’s critics allege that in the hurry to restart the economy, Madrid failed to take proper health precautions. Her administration took months to fulfil a promise it made in May to hire hundreds of staff to carry out track and trace — something she blames on the demanding qualifications for the posts. In mid-September she announced plans to deploy 1m rapid antigen tests — which identify proteins that make up the virus — but as of Sunday her administration had only carried out 83,000 such tests.

Ms Díaz Ayuso argues that the bigger picture is that Madrid has been confronting a second wave now engulfing many other cities on the continent. She faults Mr Sánchez’s government for failing to follow through with plans to introduce new legislation to enable a more coherent national response in Spain’s patchwork of 17 regions, and allow restrictions to be imposed without needing emergency powers.

But she also acknowledged that the strife between her administration and the national government “is not, of course, the best message” and added that her team wanted to sit down again with Mr Sánchez this week: “I am aware that the figures are not good, that we cannot relax, that this is not over.”



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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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