Coronavirus: confusion as Spanish death toll ‘frozen’

Government in Madrid accused of showing no respect for the dead by regional health authorities

epa08482545 Two people takes a selfie at The Orange Trees courtyard as they visit Cathedral-Mosque of Cordoba, Andalusia, Spain, 13 June 2020. Cordoba is in the last phase of coronavirus lockdown exit process.  EPA/Salas

Uncertainty has arisen around the true extent of Spain’s coronavirus outbreak after the country’s health ministry changed the way it tracks the death toll.

The virus has claimed more than 27,000 lives in Spain, but the numbers of deaths being reported have dropped off dramatically after the health authorities changed their method of recording new confirmed cases and fatalities.

Spain began reporting between 50 and 100 new deaths each day after May 25, but more recently the figure has fallen to five or fewer. On some days no deaths have been reported.

After reporting there had been no deaths for several days, Prime Minister Sanchez prompted a backlash from political rivals who have accused him of hiding the real number of fatalities.

The health ministry's emergencies co-ordinator, Fernando Simon, who for months has given a daily briefing on the pandemic's evolution, acknowledged the "astonishment" and "confusion" generated by the figures.

epa08482068 Several people meditate on Barceloneta beach, in Barcelona, in Barcelona, Spain, 13 June 2020. Barcelona is in phase 2 of coronavirus lockdown exit process.  EPA/Marta Perez

Mr Simon has said the new system was set up to facilitate rapid contact tracing for any new outbreak and that Spain’s regional health authorities must provide a detailed breakdown of cases, rather than lumping all figures together.

But last week he acknowledged that the overall number of deaths had remained "frozen" as a result of discrepancies in the figures, which he put down to delays in submitting data in certain regional areas.

Since June 7, Spain’s toll has been stuck at 27,136 while regional authorities "review the information on deaths... (until) they can give a precise death date which will give a clearer sequence," Mr Simon said.

But regional health chiefs have lashed out at the government for blaming them for the discrepancies in Covid-19 data, insisting they had submitted all the information required.

Jesus Aguirre, health minister of the southern Andalusia region which includes cities like Seville and Granada, criticised the central government’s "total lack of respect for the dead" in publishing lower figures than those submitted by the southern region itself.

The situation became even more chaotic this week after the National Statistics Institute (INE) and the Carlos III Health Institute published figures showing that Spain's death toll has been between 43,000 and 44,000 higher than it has been on average in recent years.

And this "excess mortality" has further inflamed the opposition who point to it as proof the government is playing down the death toll.

But the government in Madrid has rejected the claims, saying such figures include those who died of other causes or had coronavirus symptoms but never had a test.