CORONAVIRUS

Spanish PM offers regions their own state of alarm if needed, plus 2,000 members of the military for contact tracing

Appearing on Tuesday before reporters for the first time since his summer break, Pedro Sánchez described the “progress of the coronavirus curve” in Spain as “worrying”

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez on Tuesday.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez on Tuesday.Olmo Calvo

Speaking for the first time since his summer break, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez held a press conference on Tuesday during which he said that the “progress of the curve” of the coronavirus pandemic “is worrying in Spain,” adding that it “needed to be tackled.”

The Socialist Party (PSOE) leader, who heads a minority coalition government with junior partner Unidas Podemos, has been under pressure from the opposition to take control of the situation, after the government opted to allow the country’s regions to make their own decisions when it comes to controlling the spread of the virus when the state of alarm came to an end in June.

The prime minister responded to this pressure on Tuesday, offering regional premiers the option of requesting a state of alarm in their territory if they deem it to be necessary. He guaranteed that such a request would count on the majority of votes needed in the Congress of Deputies in order to approve it.

Let us stop the battles between parties during the fight against the pandemia. The enemy is the virus
Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez

This strategy once again puts the ball back in the courts of the regions who have been particularly critical of the government, such as the administration in Madrid, which is led by the conservative Popular Party (PP). During the state of alarm, Madrid premier Isabel Díaz Ayuso argued that the central government should reinstate regional powers, and that the emergency situation was not necessary to control the situation. Recently, however, she has been calling for the central government to take control over matters such as the return to school in September.

In June, the coalition government brought about an early end to the state of alarm due to the pressure from parties such as the PP and nationalist groups, a decision that protected Madrid from criticism and focused attention on the regions and their handling of the situation. If the regions now opt to request a state of alarm in their territory, they will have to do so taking into account the political cost of such a move.

The prime minister also offered a solution for one of the major problems that has been detected in Catalonia and Madrid: the lack of contact tracers. Sánchez has offered 2,000 members of the military to the regions for such tasks.

As he did during the state of alarm – which started out with the support of other groups such as the PP and far-right Vox, before they turned on the government and its handling of the situation – Sánchez appealed for political unity, and announced a round of talks with the different parties in a bid to join forces. “Let us stop the battles between parties during the fight against the pandemic,” he said. “The enemy is the virus.”

On three occasions, Sánchez avoided answering the most obvious question: why Spain is the European country that currently has the highest rate of new infections. The prime minister avoided directly blaming the regions, but did do so indirectly when he said that the situation is different across Spain and that some regional governments “have been more effective” at controlling the virus.

Sánchez showed himself to be much more optimistic than the education sector and parents’ groups on the start of the school year

The PSOE leader also called on the regions to “incorporate the digital tracing system” that has been created by the government, Radar Covid, and also called on citizens to download it onto their cellphones, on the basis that such a system could reduce the impact of the pandemic by up to 30%.

The other delicate matter right now is the start of the school year, an issue where the executive has also stood back to let the regions take their own decisions. On this subject, Sánchez showed himself to be much more optimistic than the sector itself and parents’ groups. The government and the education sector have, he said, been working for months on the design of the new year and parents should remain calm and have “the guarantee that there will be a return to school in safe centers, much safer than many places where you have been on vacation or in parks,” he said. “We must bring about a return to the classroom that guarantees the maximum safety for everyone, and that takes advantage of the school year.”

The prime minister pointed out that €2 billion has been given to the regions for their education sectors in the wake of the pandemic, and that 30,000 teachers have been hired for this year. He did, however, add that there are differences between the regions, and that while the Valencia region has hired 4,000 new staff members for schools, others have done less – another veiled criticism of the Madrid government.

The prime minister also avoided responding to criticism voiced by his coalition partner Unidas Podemos, which has decried the “lack of leadership” from Education Minister Isabel Celáa. “I have a very positive opinion of the way that the coalition government is working,” was all that Sánchez would say on the matter.

English version by Simon Hunter.

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