Spanish doctors win lawsuit over lack of Covid-19 protection

Spain's healthcare system was pushed to the brink when the coronavirus first struck

A medical staff member tends to a Covid-19 patient in the ICU of the Clinica Universitaria in Pamplona, northern Spain, on January 12. AP
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Spain’s medical community has scored a victory after a court ordered that a regional government must compensate doctors up to €49,000 ($56,000) each for having to work without personal protection suits early in the pandemic.

The lawsuit brought by a doctor’s union is the first of its kind to be won in Spain, the healthcare system of which was pushed to the brink when Covid-19 first struck.

“This ruling is groundbreaking in Spain,” Dr Víctor Pedrera, secretary general of the Doctors’ Union of Valencia that filed the suit, said on Wednesday.

Dr Pedrera, a family doctor, said he became ill with Covid-19 shortly after it hit Spain in March 2020, and spent two months at home “quite badly off and with no idea of what was being done for treatment".

The court in the eastern province of Alicante ruled late on Tuesday that the region of Valencia failed to protect the health of its doctors during the first three months of the pandemic.

The judge said the lack of personal protection suits created “a serious safety and health danger for all health workers, especially for doctors, due to their direct exposure".

The judge ordered compensation ranging from €5,000 ($5,720) to €49,000 be paid to the 153 doctors in the lasuit.

Doctors who were forced to work without proper protection but did not become infected or forced to isolate themselves will receive €5,000.

The compensation increases to €15,000 for doctors forced to isolate, €35,000 for those who were infected but did not need hospital care, and to €49,000 for doctors who required hospital treatment.

Valencia’s government will appeal against the ruling, but regional chief Ximo Puig issued an apology to the medical workers while saying the initial impact of the pandemic was “completely unexpected".

The ruling said the region’s health administration failed to meet its duty to protect the doctors “from the moment it knew of the existence of Covid-19 and, in particular after the declaration of a national state of emergency".

Spain’s General Board of Doctors, which represents the regional unions, celebrated the decision while “lamenting that it is not applicable to every doctor", AP reported.

It said 121 doctors in Spain had died because of Covid-19.

Spain, like many countries, struggled to supply its health workers with personal protection suits and face masks during the first months of the pandemic.

The national government imposed a strict home confinement for several weeks after declaring a state of emergency in March 2020.

Spain’s healthcare system is again being strained, by a new wave of infections driven by the highly contagious Omicron coronavirus variant, even if deaths are now much lower thanks to the country’s high vaccination rate.

Nearly 25 per cent of critical care units are occupied by Covid-19 patients and emergency workers are saying they can barely keep up.

“We are exhausted. Emergency workers are at their limit,” said Dr Tato Vazquez-Lima, president of the Spanish Society for Emergency Medicine.

Dr Pedrera said more lawsuits were coming from other doctors in Valencia and he expected even more from health workers of all types across Spain.

“I am sure that other groups of health workers and doctors from other regions will be encouraged to go forward with their own lawsuits,” he said. “This will be on the one that opens the door.”

Updated: January 13, 2022, 1:15 AM