Salvador Illa: "The pandemic has not dissolved the Catalan problem, it still exists"

Interview with the Minister of Health

Salvador Illa (La Roca del Vallès, 1966) is Minister of Health and Secretary of Organization of the PSC. He receives us at the Moncloa with a calm appearance, and a speech that is moderate in form and orthodox in substance.

In the first wave you opted for centralisation and the state of emergency. Now there is a decentralised management. What is your assessment?

I make a positive assessment despite the fact that there is room for improvement. The pandemic has strained the institutional frameworks of all states, but decentralised management has worked reasonably well. All the autonomous regions have done a good job and it has become clear that coordination is needed, because the pandemic is not limited to one territory. Coordination is needed within our field and within Europe.

Do the data from Madrid surprise you?

No, look, first of all we have to say that we are in an unstable situation, and things are changing swiftly, for better and for worse, especially for worse, and we have seen this in our country's territories and also in other European countries. We must therefore always be very careful. Secondly, there is a common framework for action everywhere: Madrid had 21 days of very restrictive lockdown measures. We had a discrepancy which was public and we forced a lockdown in nine municipalities in Madrid for 15 days with very restrictive measures when we had already had six days with equally restrictive measures. Therefore, there were 21 days followed by very restrictive measures which led to this decrease.

What does it suggest to you politically, as a minister and as a member of the PSC, to hear that Madrid is " Spain within Spain ”?

I don't get into this, let everyone say what they believe. I don't like confrontation because I think it's negative even from an epidemiological point of view, because people think, "Look at the way they argue".

One of the most difficult aspects of the pandemic everywhere is the management of data. Are they reliable?

We provide the data that the communities give us and I can confirm that it is reliable. There may be occasional errors, since the system was not prepared for a pandemic that would last so many months and have this scope, but it works reasonably well. However, we are working to improve it. Just think that in the first wave we had about 2.3 million cases, according to the seroprevalence study, which no other country around us has done, and we detected 10% of the cases, a low detection, about 230,000 cases. In this second wave we will know soon, but the technicians tell me that we are around 60% or 80%, a level of detection that is already very important.

Have you changed your opinion about serological testing?

No, all tests have a function. To the public we have to say that the most reliable diagnostic test is the PCR or the TMA, which are done using plasma analysis criteria and are almost 100% reliable. Serological tests calibrate people who have passed the disease, and well interpreted and well administered, they have a function.

Will there be antigen tests in pharmacies?

In Galicia they did a pilot test in pharmacies, and have not continued it. I would be very prudent, the technical teams were not sure of it.

The Generalitat is about to make some of its measures more flexible. What do you think about that?

I have a very fluid relationship with the Minister and my team talks to hers practically every day. The Generalitat has taken courageous measures, and the results are being seen. It is necessary to act very prudently because it is true that there has been a significant decrease in the accumulated incidence, but I insist that the situation is very unstable and we would be very wrong if we were to send out a message that this is over. We are on the verge of winter, when activities are increasingly being carried out indoors, and contagion is on the increase. We are also at the gates of Christmas...

In the run-up to Christmas, will the Spanish ministry or government take any action on mobility, for example?

We have agreed to create a working group to study all the activities linked to Christmas and generate a set of recommendations.

What would you recommend?

The less mobility and less contacts, the better. Business meetings this year are out of the question. But I understand that a person who is in a residence wants to spend these days with their family. Perhaps they should take a PCR test before leaving, and take another one when they go back. This autumn, every time there has been a bank holiday or a festive activity, we have seen that in the 10 or 15 days following it there has been an increase in infections. From January, however, we will be able to receive, if everything goes well, doses to vaccinate the population, and by May a good part of the population will be vaccinated.

We already have seven vaccine providers and you are already talking about January, which is very soon...

There has been a European strategy that has been the key to success. The European Commission has negotiated on behalf of the whole Union and it has been decided to make a purchase of seven types of vaccines. We already have signed contracts with five of these companies.

Do we know where they will be produced and do you know how they will be administered?

Yes, one will be produced in Spain, in a facility of the Zendal group in Galicia. There will probably be some other vaccine that will also have its final phase in our country, but this is not yet closed. We have been working for months on a covid vaccination plan. A specific register will be created for this vaccine.

A specific register?

When a person is vaccinated there will be a register with the data to be able to follow how they evolve, but this is usual in vaccines. Our country has experience with vaccines. Every year about 10 million citizens are vaccinated because of the flu campaign, there are thirteen thousand vaccination spots with trained professionals. We are prepared to do it properly.

There is a percentage of the population that is always afraid of vaccines. What would you say to them?

Vaccines save lives, this is historical evidence. And it is true that someone may say that it has been prepared very quickly, but the European rules and regulatory framework are very demanding, like the American ones, and I can say that when we administer a vaccine there will be guarantees of safety and efficacy.

What is your government's proposal to solve the Catalan political conflict?

We defend that Catalonia meets with itself, and with the rest of Spain, using a mechanism, dialogue, which was so dear to Ernest Lluch. As President Tarradellas said, Catalonia is large enough for all of us to fit in it, and too small for anyone to be left behind.

Can you specify what this meeting consists of? Is it a negotiating table without red lines?

The forty points that President Torra put on the table and the twenty-odd points that President Mas presented at the time, except for the unilateral ones, can all be discussed. I think we must seek an agreement amongst all of us. Furthermore, it is true that in Catalonia we have an Estatut [Statute] that the citizens did not vote for, and I think this will have to be corrected.

Do you see a negotiation table after the Catalan elections?

I see a need for dialogue, conversation and the sharing of points of view, especially in the coming years. It is true that there have been some people who have thought: "Look, the pandemic has dissolved the Catalan problem", and this is not true. The pandemic has not dissolved it, the problem continues to exist. But we must bear in mind that at the moment there are other priorities, such as how we protect the health of our citizens, how we protect the economy, how we guarantee that no one will be left behind. How we guarantee that Catalonia does not miss the train of renewal of our economy with European funds. These days I think about how important it would have been for the European Medicine Agency to be in Barcelona. We lost that.

The rise of independence is also linked to management weekness and under-funding.

Yes, I would like us to look forward rather than backward, and what has happened has happened, and it seems to me that it has not been positive for anyone. Of course, the balance sheet is not good for Catalonia, but we must look ahead, and if there are financing problems, let us reason them out. If there are management problems, let us reason them out. If the tools we have for self-government need to be improved, let us get together and do it. What I want to send out is a message of looking ahead.

Does the territorial architecture of Spain need to be rethought?

It has to be improved, but I feel quite satisfied, as I said before, that in a very complex context, a pandemic unprecedented in at least the last 100 years, our institutional framework has worked reasonably well. In any event, I am sure that it has not worked worse than others.

You spoke of meeting. W ould it be easier with the pro-independence political leaders out of prison?

The processes have to be followed here. Ours is a state with separation of powers, and the events that have taken place have not brought any good to anyone, neither to Catalonia nor to Spain. We must act with the utmost respect for the rule of law.

In any case, there are nearly three thousand people in Catalonia who have pending cases related to the Procés. Do you see the feasibility of an amnesty?

I believe that amnesty has no place in our constitutional system.

There are elections in Catalonia in February.

I hope that the PSC will be the leading force. And I think, if I may, and with all modesty, that the facts have proved us right. There is no future for a divided, confrontational Catalan society. I believe that our approach is a winner.

With whom is it preferable to approve the budgets?

There is a majority that made Pedro Sánchez's investiture possible and the will is to maintain this majority. Naturally, if it can be enlarged, the much the better. The political formations that do not support the budgets will have to explain very well why they do not do so, they are unprecedented expansionary budgets, very exceptional.

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