CORONAVIRUS

With state of alarm set to end in Madrid, government looks for new ways to control coronavirus spread

The central administration is seeking an agreement on Covid-19 restrictions with all of the regions before the emergency measure expires on Saturday

Spain's Health Minister Salvador Illa in Congress.
Spain's Health Minister Salvador Illa in Congress.Fernando Alvarado / EFE

The Spanish government is rushing to reach a new agreement with the country’s regions on coronavirus measures before the state of alarm it implemented in Madrid ends on Saturday. Under the emergency measure, which was declared in the region on October 9, nine cities in the central region – including the Spanish capital – were placed under perimetral lockdowns and subject to other restrictions on social gatherings in a bid to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The move was fiercely opposed by the Madrid administration, which claimed the restrictions would hurt business in the region. The question of how to contain the coronavirus pandemic has been the source of an ongoing dispute between the Spanish government, headed by a center-left coalition of the Socialist Party (PSOE) and junior partner Unidas Podemos, and the Madrid government, run by a center-right alliance of the Popular Party (PP) and Ciudadanos (Citizens), propped up by far-right Vox.

The state of alarm only lasts for 15 days and will expire on Saturday at 3pm. After that time, the coronavirus restrictions introduced in the Madrid region will no longer be valid. The state of alarm can be extended for another 15 days if the decision is approved by an absolute majority of Spain’s lower house, the Congress of Deputies. But the Spanish government does not have sufficient lawmakers in the chamber, meaning it would need to secure the support from other parties – a difficult challenge given the divisions in parliament.

The Health Ministry wants regional leaders to agree to a coronavirus alert system aimed at clarifying the measures that should be taken to contain the epidemic

The Spanish government does not have any legal alternative to the state of alarm and extending it has all but been ruled out due to the political difficulties involved with such a move. The Health Ministry instead is hoping regional leaders will agree to a coronavirus alert system aimed at clarifying the measures that should be taken to contain the epidemic, depending on the risk level in each territory. This four-level system will be discussed by Spain’s Inter-territorial Health Committee – which brings together the country’s regional healthcare chiefs – on Wednesday. If the plan is approved by a majority of Spain’s regions, the Madrid government will be forced to adhere to the measures, regardless of whether it voted in favor of the plan or not.

This is the same strategy used by the Health Ministry several weeks ago, when it proposed that perimetral lockdowns and social restrictions be applied in municipalities of more than 100,000 inhabitants that exceeded specific coronavirus thresholds. The plan was approved by a majority of Spain’s regions and published in the Official State Gazette (BOE). The Madrid government applied the rules, but immediately appealed the decision to the Madrid High Court, which struck down the confinement measures. However, other regional courts, such as the Castilla y León High Court, ratified similar decisions to confine areas with high coronavirus transmission rates. This is because the Madrid region based the confinement rules on a 2003 law, not the more comprehensive 1986 public health law that has successfully been used by several regions to restrict movement.

The Spanish government is hopeful that the Madrid administration will not resort to this legal ruse to avoid new coronavirus restrictions. But the laws have not changed since the Madrid High Court made its ruling, meaning the possibility remains. In the meantime, the Madrid government is continuing to push for perimetral lockdowns based on basic healthcare areas – which are smaller than a city district and can include several primary healthcare centers – a move the Health Ministry does not believe goes far enough. As Wednesday’s meeting approaches, Health Minister Salvador Illa is in intense negotiations on the alert system and the Madrid region appears to be gearing up for a battle.

Legal framework not prepared for rebel regions

According to sources from the Spanish government, addressing the situation in Madrid is both legally and politically difficult. The legal framework, which the central government believes to be enough to face the coronavirus pandemic, is not prepared for rebellious regional governments.

In May, Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo announced that the government had a list of several reforms of up to four laws that would be approved in August ahead of a possible second wave of the pandemic. But this project was put aside because it did not have enough support from other political parties, according to government sources.

Meanwhile, the PP has prepared a reform of the 1986 health law that would allow it to be used as an alternative to a state of alarm. Congress is set to vote on the draft law soon, but there are concerns that it will allow fundamental rights to be limited without proper oversight. Experts from La Moncloa, the Spanish seat of government, say that it is risky because it would allow regional governments to restrict rights using a law – not an exceptional measure like a state of alarm that requires Congressional approval.

Madrid premier Isabel Díaz Ayuso and deputy premier Ignacio Aguado on Sunday.
Madrid premier Isabel Díaz Ayuso and deputy premier Ignacio Aguado on Sunday.Daniel Gonzalez / GTRES

In June, the Spanish government approved the so-called “New Normality” decree, which directed all decisions on the coronavirus pandemic to the Inter-territorial Health Committee. It also dictated that all legal decisions on how to address coronavirus outbreaks be dealt with by regional high courts, instead of regular judges. According to the executive, these measures have been able to resolve situations in all of Spain’s 17 regions except Madrid.

But this legal framework was not prepared for a region to appeal coronavirus restrictions to the courts, and less so using a legal ruse. In other words, it did not expect Madrid’s defiance and it still has no way of stopping it. If the coronavirus alert system is approved on Wednesday, the Ayuso government can still base the order on the 2003 law and appeal the decision to the regional court, which will throw out any restrictions on movement on the same grounds.

There is nothing to stop the Madrid administration from doing this, but the Spanish government is hoping this time will be different. Across Spain and Europe, authorities are taking much stricter measures than Madrid in a bid to stop the spread of the coronavirus. But there is no guarantee that the political time bomb that Madrid has become will not explode again on Saturday, when the state of alarm comes to an end.

If that does happen, the Spanish government does have one emergency solution: to declare a new state of alarm for 15 days. If it is a new measure and not an extension of the current state of alarm, the government does not need approval from Congress. But no one currently thinks that the situation will get to that point.

Divisions within Madrid government

The question over how to contain the coronavirus pandemic in the Madrid region has also led to political divisions within the Madrid government, specifically between Ayuso and her deputy premier, Ignacio Aguado of Ciudadanos. All efforts the Madrid government has made to present a unified image before the press crumbled once again at the weekend. In an interview with EL PAÍS published on Sunday, Aguado argued that Ayuso’s measures were not enough to curb contagion rates. “We cannot say that we are doing well because it’s not the truth,” he said. “We have to look for sensible solutions.”

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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