COROANVIRUS

Congress backs PM’s request to extend state of alarm in Spain until April 26, with a further 15 days likely

Opposition parties were highly critical of how the Socialist Party government of Pedro Sánchez has handled the crisis during Thursday’s debate in the lower house of parliament

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez defends extending the state of alarm in Congress on Thursday.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez defends extending the state of alarm in Congress on Thursday.Mariscal / EFE

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez secured approval from the Congress of Deputies on Thursday for his decision to extend the state of alarm in Spain and current confinement measures until April 26. The move, which will keep residents of Spain mostly locked down in their homes for an additional two weeks from the previous deadline of April 12, is aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus.

During an acrimonious debate in the lower house of parliament over his government’s management of the crisis, Sánchez told Congress he is “convinced” that before the new deadline ends, he will have to ask the legislature “for another extension of 15 days, because by then we will not have put an end to the pandemic.” This would push the end of the state of alarm to May 10. It is not yet known, however, what the exact confinement conditions would be under this extension. The Spanish government has hinted that it is considering a very gradual deescalation of the measures currently in place according to the available data on the epidemic.

The state of alarm has been in place since March 14, which was when confinement measures were first imposed. The government also “hibernated” the economy last Monday, putting non-essential workers on obligatory paid leave. Such employees are due to return to work on Monday.

Sánchez leads a minority coalition government with junior partner Unidas Podemos. Given the lack of a working majority, the prime minister needs the support of other groups in order to pass legislation.

The leader of the main opposition group, Pablo Casado of the Popular Party (PP), on Thursday threatened to stop supporting any more extensions to the lockdown.

“We are aware of the sacrifice that a second extension entails, but we know that it is essential to consolidate our gains,” said Sánchez, of the Socialist Party (PSOE), speaking to a near-empty chamber as lawmakers followed the debate from home.

Spain has so far been one of the countries hardest hit by the coronavirus, with more than 15,000 deaths officially attributed to the Covid-19 disease. But the real number could be significantly higher as only victims who get tested are included in the tally. This leaves out many residents who passed away in senior residences and people who died in their homes. Meanwhile, healthcare services have been struggling to cope with the influx of patients, with field hospitals and makeshift morgues set up in Madrid and Catalonia, two of the most affected regions.

“The priority is not letting our guard down. We are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. We need to make this new effort to get out of the tunnel,” said Sánchez, who also reached out to other parties in a bid to secure support for a national recovery pact.

“Spain is going through extreme times. There will be time to reflect later on, but right now we cannot arrive late to the economic and social crisis that is already upon us. I want to reiterate my proposal for a Moncloa Pact,” he said, alluding to the cross-party agreements of 1977 that helped Spain transition into a democracy following decades of rule by dictator Francisco Franco. On Thursday Sánchez said that he will call all political parties to a first meeting next week in an effort to craft a new national pact modeled after the 1977 agreements.

Securing approval

The April 26 extension secured overwhelming approval thanks to support from the main opposition Popular Party (PP), Ciudadanos and the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV). Only the far-right Vox and separatist parties from Catalonia and the Basque Country voted against or abstained.

Opposition leaders did not spare Sánchez criticism even as they pledged to support the extension.

“Mr Sánchez, Spaniards deserve a government that does not lie to them. The dead, their families, infected people, hospitalized people, health workers, people in confinement, they all deserve it,” said Popular Party (PP) leader Pablo Casado. “We need politicians who take responsibility and do not blame others for their mistakes.”

“You have no moral authority to ask for unity and loyalty, but we will support the confinement measures,” added Casado, saying the decision is based on “our ethics of responsibility.”

The Catalan Republican Party (ERC), whose chief Oriol Junqueras was one of the separatist leaders to receive prison sentences for the 2017 unilateral breakaway attempt, abstained at the vote on Thursday. “As in previous occasions, we are critical about the way [the state of alarm] is being applied,” said the party in a press release.

“We will support some of the economic and social measures, even if we view them as insufficient and recentralizing,” said ERC deputy Gabriel Rufián in Congress. “You are still allowing people to commute to work. It doesn’t make sense for millions of children not be allowed out to play while the cities are full of riders delivering trays of sushi to people. Either we stop the country or there will be no flag to fly.”

Vox leader Santiago Abascal blamed Sánchez and his deputy, Pablo Iglesias of Unidas Podemos, for the “tragedy” affecting Spain’s healthcare, economy and workforce.

“You are responsible for the highest coronavirus mortality rate in the world, and that’s despite the suspicious official figures, which are likely to turn out to be the greatest hoax in this entire tragedy, the greatest lie,” he said, alluding to the difficulties in tallying the real amount of coronavirus deaths.

Some opposition leaders expressed views that the government’s plan to gradually start lifting restrictions on movement on April 26 is too soon.

“We can’t slacken the pace now. The government needs to keep it up. Nobody slows down when they’re gaining an advantage,” said Iñigo Errejón, a former Podemos leader who now heads the party Más País. “It could be a disaster, it’s an unnecessary risk.”

Economic fallout

With the economy at a standstill for close to a month, jobless claims have soared and the coalition government led by the PSOE with its junior partner, leftist Unidas Podemos, has come up with a set of initiatives to help the most vulnerable groups, including small businesses and the self-employed. Last month Sánchez announced a €200 billion relief package that was followed by other measures that included state-guaranteed loans for struggling companies and deferred social security contributions.

The government has said it would like to gradually start easing some of the restrictions after April 26. On Thursday, Sánchez warned that “any slip-up could lead to a relapse.” He also said the the executive is working with a team of experts to design a return “to a new normality with individual and collective measures involving hygiene, health and technology in order to control the pandemic.”

The Spanish PM also alluded to the European Union, which until Thursday night had failed to produce a common response to the economic crisis produced by the coronavirus pandemic. Last night the 27-country bloc agreed to release €500 million to help combat the crisis, but fell short of approving so-called “coronabonds” aimed at sharing out debt.

“We need a solidarity without cracks in Europe,” Sánchez said on Thursday in Congress. “This is what I am demanding of the EU. It’s now or never. What has been done so far is not enough, we need to be demanding. Resources must be mobilized. Austerity and cuts are not the way.”

English version by Susana Urra.

More information