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The Ombudsman passes on the concerns of citizens in the coronavirus crisis to the authorities
The Defensor del Pueblo (e,f) Francisco Fernández Marugán, addressed the Ministers of Health, Finance, the Interior, Inclusion, Social Security and Migration and Foreign Affairs, the European Union and Cooperation to inform them of the problems raised by citizens in the thousands of complaints received to date regarding the COVID-19 health crisis.
Likewise, he also maintained contact with different regional and local administrations to supervise their actions and to make proposals to help overcome the current situation.
Fernández Marugán appreciates the efforts made to meet the needs of citizens in the extreme situation in which we find ourselves and offers the absolute collaboration of the institution he directs.
The Ombudsman also wants to applaud the “demanding and magnificent work” being done by all the health care personnel, members of the state security forces, workers in retirement homes and those who care for dependent persons, civil servants and employees in places of deprivation of liberty, and all those workers who continue working, enabling citizens to have access to all the essential services.
Since the first days of the crisis, the Ombudsman has constantly communicated with the Ministry of Health, a department to which he has transferred the testimony of many people who are facing a critical and very distressing situation, as they fear for their own health and that of their loved ones.
After these first two weeks of the state of alarm and confinement, the Institution insists on the need for all administrations to coordinate faithfully in order to increase the resources endowment of the health, social, dependency and residential system, public or private.
In this context, the Ombudsman urged providing the necessary protection material to health care workers and other assistance personnel and pressed to increase the use of confirmation tests.
It has also called for a clear procedure of action in all health services – adaptable to the evolution of events – and which includes not only the essential clinical-care criteria but also practical tools to enable patients to communicate with their loved ones.
In the intervention aimed at the Regional Health Ministries, the Institution has requested detailed information on the purchase and distribution of the instruments and equipment necessary for the care of serious cases of Covid-19 and the protective equipment and confirmation tests.
Moreover, it has requested data about the increase in hospital beds and intensive care specialists, the cooperation actions carried out with other autonomous communities under the coordination of the Ministry of Health, and the procedures to ensure that diagnostic tests are being carried out on health and care personnel and on patients with clinical conditions compatible with Covid-19 in situations of home isolation.
This action also included questions about the reorganization of the health care network: the increase in hospital staff and new contracts, functions assigned to primary care services to deal with the epidemic, and measures to strengthen home care.
Elderly and Dependent Persons
The Institution shares the concern reflected in the citizens’ complaints regarding the situation of elderly people living in care centres.
As the Institution has already pointed out in different reports, the ratio of professionals working in homes for the elderly is very low, not to say scarce. Such situation has now worsened with the current crisis.
According to a letter sent by the Defensor to the Minister of Health, the orders of 19 and 23 March contain instructions for a better management of the situation, especially in the larger residential centres, but the needs for protective equipment and diagnostic tests must be addressed in order to properly distribute users.
The Defensor has also communicated with various regional councils with jurisdiction over specific complaints regarding the situation of several homes for the elderly, and will expand these contacts in the coming days to obtain an overall view of how the administrations are acting in this matter.
In this sense, the Institution wishes to know the measures adopted to provide or reinforce health care in public or private residential centres, the protocols followed in resident referral to hospital centres, and the fit out of public or private centres and establishments for monographic care for Covid-19.
Another matter of concern for the Ombudsman is the great anguish that family members are experiencing due to the lack of news about their loved ones. Therefore, he considers that an effort should be made to communicate the progress of those affected and that, in the event of death, the protocol followed with the deceased and for the safe removal of their belongings should be disseminated.
Lastly, the Ombudsman highlights the fundamental work carried out by workers in the home help service for dependent persons living in their own houses. Therefore, he urges the Government to ensure that their work is recognized and supported with the necessary resources to safeguard their health and the possible contagion of those they look after.
SMEs and the self-employed
The Institution has also conveyed to the Ministry of Finance the concern of many self-employed individuals and SMEs who have approached the Ombudsman expressing problems in meeting their tax obligations throughout the month of April.
In a letter sent to the Minister of Finance, the Ombudsman stated that it would be advisable to relax the deadlines for compliance with tax obligations that both groups have to face in the next three weeks.
In the complaints received by the Institution, citizens explain that many of the professionals in charge of filing quarterly returns (advisors, managers, lawyers…) have closed their offices as a health protection measure, and they assure that this limits or prevents the transfer of invoices and documents necessary for the preparation of tax returns-settlements and self-assessments.
In the letter addressed to the ministerial department, the Ombudsman reminds that, according to data from the Association of Administrative Managers of Spain, 80% of the required quarterly declarations are made by professionals and companies external to the taxpayers. In addition, he points out that the closure of the State Agency of Tax Administration (AEAT) offices has aggravated this situation, since many self-employed or SMEs lack the possibility of clarifying their doubts or preparing these documents themselves.
In addition, the technological update that would allow the telematic presentation of all obligations reaches approximately 50% of SMEs and self-employed, and the payment of settlements at the banks’ physical counters is still frequent.
For all these reasons, the Ombudsman considers that all these situations can be improved by making the deadlines for compliance with these formal obligations more flexible and proposes some alternatives. Thus, he points out that the presentations could be deferred, so that in the year 2020 they are carried out on a half-yearly basis, or the deadlines could be extended to twenty days after the end of the confinement measures. In this way, the burden of these tax obligations would be compatible with the situation of generalized movement limitation stipulated.
Another possibility, according to the Ombudsman, would be to move the deadline for these obligations to May, so that they can be filed when it is foreseeable that the decrease in the number of coronavirus cases (infected and admitted people) will offer some economic hope for those liable for tax.
Income and Property Campaign 2019
The Institution requested the Ministry of Finance to extend the deadlines for the 2019 Income and Property campaign.
Although many families will be able to obtain their tax refunds, those who have lost a family member or who are in the process of being admitted or isolated and have to present the income tax declaration for the 2019 fiscal year on behalf of those persons, may experience unprecedented difficulties in accessing the paperwork and data necessary to make the presentation.
Displaced people and health care workers who are currently devoting all their efforts and time to fighting the pandemic may also encounter these difficulties.
For this reason, the Ombudsman advocates for the extension of the deadlines for the declaration’s presentation, either by enabling a general extension for a time equal to the time that the limitations on social contact are maintained, or by adopting a general measure that extends the deadline for the presentation of declarations until September 30th.
Likewise, the Institution believes that measures to relieve the Treasury could also be considered and has proposed the possibility of modifying the regulations so that those citizens who renounce their personal income tax return for the 2019 campaign can receive it by way of compensation over the next four fiscal years.
The Ombudsman has transferred to the Ministry of the Interior the complaints received by the Institution in which citizens express their doubts about the movement limitations imposed after the state of alarm was decreed. He has also sent to the aforementioned Ministry some letters from people denouncing incorrect actions by the State security forces.
In his reply, the Minister explained that various orders had been issued to clarify and specify certain aspects that were raising doubts about movement restrictions. He also committed himself to investigate any misconduct by agents of the State security forces that might occur.
In addition, the Ombudsman is in constant communication with those responsible for the Prison Administration. Thus, the Institution has initiated proceedings with the General Secretariat of Penitentiary Institutions and the Secretariat of Criminal Measures, Reinsertion and Victim Care of the Generalitat of Catalonia to learn about the measures being taken throughout the country to protect the prison population and the civil servants working in these centers.
The Institution is aware of the important effort being made by the General Secretariat of Penitentiary Institutions to preserve the right to health of inmates and civil servants. In fact, this administration has already sent the Ombudsman detailed information on all the actions they are taking.
Last week, the World Health Organization published a guide on how to deal with Covid-19 within prisons (23 March) and the Council of Europe’s CPT presented a Declaration of Principles on the same subject (20 March). In the Ombudsman’s opinion, it would be appropriate, in the light of these documents and the development of the situation in prisons, to carry out a permanent evaluation of the measures adopted so far and their modulation, always using scientific public health criteria, in matters such as treatment (health and prison: the Institution calls for the adoption of health and classification measures, with special attention to the most vulnerable groups such as the elderly, pregnant women, the chronically ill…), family procedures or communications and with other institutions, seeking in particular to make the greatest possible use of new technologies, as has been happening among the general public.
Fernández Marugán also recalls that complaints submitted to the Ombudsman by inmates used to be processed by ordinary mail and that this service is currently limited so that other means of communication would have to be made available. The Institution also insisted on the need to provide Covid 19 detection devices and individual protection equipment for prison staff, both for surveillance and health care.
The CIE and the CETI
After the state of alarm was decreed for the management of the health crisis caused by COVID-19, the Institution began to receive complaints about the situation of people in Foreigners’ Internment Centers (CIE). Fernández Marugán requested the release of these persons since, in the current situation, their return or expulsion cannot be carried out. The Ombudsman recalls that the exclusive purpose of the deprivation of liberty of these persons in these centres is to ensure the materialization of their return or expulsion.
Fernández Marugán is in constant communication with the General Commissioner for Aliens and Borders and with the Secretariat of State for Migration. Both departments have reported on the coordination measures taken, which have made it possible to gradually release the inmates by referring them to available humanitarian reception resources.
Furthermore, the Ombudsman has also transferred to the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Inclusion, Social Security and Migration considerations regarding the situation in the temporary stay centres for immigrants (CETI) in Ceuta and Melilla. Fernández Marugán, taking into account the traditional over-occupation of these two centres, where a significant number of minors is also found, advocates continuing with the transfers to the peninsula and thus avoiding contagion in premises that, in his opinion, are not prepared for such an eventuality.
Work permits and qualification recognition
Fernández Marugán has asked the Minister of Inclusion, Social Security and Migration to grant work permits for certain groups of foreign citizens who could join certain sectors (health, agriculture or care of the elderly) that urgently need personnel in this crisis.
The Ombudsman is aware that this is not the time to address regulatory reforms. However, he believes that current legislation allows for work permits to be issued to citizens who are in a regular situation in Spain but who cannot access the labour market because they do not have a work permit.
In this situation, there are both applicants for international protection – holders of the so-called “red card” – and young people who were formerly in care by the Administration, who are holders of a non-profit residence permit.
Fernández Marugán recalls that the Aliens Regulations provide that, in the event that circumstances of an economic, social or labour-related nature make it advisable, the Council of Ministers may issue instructions for the granting of temporary residence and/or work permits, which may be linked temporarily, by labour occupation, or territorially, under the terms set out therein.
In this sense, to alleviate the lack of personnel in certain areas, the Ombudsman has also made a recommendation to the General Directorate of Professional Organization and the General Secretariat of Universities to facilitate the incorporation of health professionals who are currently awaiting the finalization of their health care training approval or recognition.
Spanish people abroad
The Ombudsman has also addressed the Minister of Foreign Affairs to refer the complaints of citizens who have met this health crisis outside Spain. Those who contacted the Institution have requested more information and explained the problems they have encountered in contacting certain consulates by telephone or e-mail.
The Ombudsman appreciates the efforts made by the Foreign Affairs Department, which has allowed for thousands of citizens to return to Spain, but asks for an effort to be made in establishing effective communication channels with other citizens who have not managed to return yet, in order to facilitate their return.
The Ombudsman has received complaints about the situation of the homeless, which show the lack of adequate resources and the scarcity of personal protection means, to facilitate care in reasonable distance conditions.
This concern has been conveyed to both the Ministry of Health and the Mayor’s Office of Madrid, since workers and non-governmental organizations that provide assistance to this group in various shelters in the capital have warned that the increase in users in existing centers is generating overcrowding and a lack of safe spaces to prevent contagion.
The Ombudsman is aware of the efforts being made to improve care for these people, but believes it is necessary to provide the facilities with sanitary reinforcements and to set up additional accommodation areas that will make it possible to increase measures to separate users according to their symptoms. Cleaning and disinfection services should also be reinforced and professionals and users should be provided with individual protective equipment.
Virtual visits to places of deprivation of liberty
The institution, which also acts as the National Mechanism for the Prevention of Torture, is monitoring the situation in the various detention centres by conducting virtual visits. New ways of working have been explored in order to respect the principle of “do no harm” established by international bodies. This principle involves avoiding the risk that persons outside a facility, in this case the NPM visiting team, may inadvertently introduce the Covid19 into the places visited or may become transmitting agents outside.
Thus, forms have been prepared for the different types of centres and the technicians of this unit are holding telephone interviews with the persons in charge. In addition, it is planned to conduct video interviews with inmates, using the mobile phones that the General Secretariat of Penitentiary Institutions is distributing in the prisons, and the possibility of doing so in other types of places of deprivation of liberty is being studied.
In the case of prisons, interviews will also be conducted with officials, whose professionalism, in these difficult times for all, is ensuring that no major incidents occur.
So far, 16 virtual visits have been made to the prisons of Topas (Salamanca), Almería, Antoni Asunción (Valencia), Teruel, Madrid I, II, III, IV, V and VI; the CIE in Madrid, Valencia and Las Palmas; the central register for people under arrest, the centres for juvenile offenders Los Alcores de Carmona (Seville) and La Alzina (Barcelona); the refuge and unaccompanied minors room at Barajas airport (Madrid) and the Actur Rey Fernando National Police Station (Zaragoza). Papers with conclusions are being prepared.
The Ombudsman is also working on trying to resolve other pre-crisis issues that have been exacerbated by the confinement situation. This is the case of power and water cuts in various parts of Spain. Similarly, there are complaints about cuts or breakdowns in telephone lines of those people who have remote assistance.
Citizens’ complaints about missed flights have also been dealt with, and ex officio action has been taken with the Ministry of Transport, Mobility and Urban Agenda, due to the difficulties encountered by thousands of people in returning to the peninsula after their flights were cancelled in the Canary Islands.
Likewise, various problems arising from the continued use of tourist accommodation as places of confinement are being investigated, fundamentally related to the duty of the communities of neighbours to comply with the special requirements of disinfection and cleaning, and with problems relating to the deficient registration of these flats by the competent authorities.
The Defensor’s Contingency Plan
Despite the fact that face-to-face services at the headquarters of the Institution have been suspended until further notice, citizens continue to be assisted on the telephone 900 101 025 and through the web.
The Ombudsman has implemented a contingency plan to ensure full functioning and attention to all those who need to make their complaints. This plan contemplates teleworking for practically all of the Institution’s employees.
Press and Communication Dept.: Marta Álvarez-Montalvo, Laura Nuño del Campo
Press: +34 91 319 68 22
Information Calling from Spain (free number): 900 101 025