CORONAVIRUS

All of Spain will be at least in Phase 1 of coronavirus deescalation plan by Monday, government announces

The Madrid region will finally leave Phase 0, after two requests to do so were rejected by the Health Ministry. Castilla y León and Barcelona city will also enter this stage, which allows for social gatherings of up to 10 people

A worker cleans the window to a store in the center of Madrid.
A worker cleans the window to a store in the center of Madrid.©Jaime Villanueva

The central government announced on Friday afternoon the regions that have been given the green light to transition to a new phase of the government’s coronavirus deescalation plan. With the exception of Valencia, all regional authorities had asked to move partially or completely to the next stage.

Speaking at a press conference, Health Minister Salvador Illa indicated that all the provinces of Castilla y León, as well as the metropolitan area of Barcelona, will move from Phase 0 to Phase 1. Earlier on Friday, the Health Ministry had announced that it had also agreed to allow the Madrid region to move to Phase 1, which allows for social gatherings of up to 10 people and sidewalk cafés to reopen at 50% capacity, among other measures.

Illa informed Madrid regional health chief Enrique Ruiz-Escudero of the decision on Friday morning. Madrid, considered the epicenter of the Covid-19 epidemic in Spain, had twice requested a looser lockdown since May 7, but on both occasions it was told that it failed to meet the requirements set out by health experts.

The following regions will transition to Phase 2: Andalusia (with the exception of Málaga and Granada), Castilla-La Mancha (with the exception of Toledo, Albacete and Ciudad Real), Galicia, the Balearic Islands (the island of Formentera moved to Phase 2 last week), the Canary Islands (the islands of La Gomera, La Graciosa and El Hierro are already in this phase), the Basque Country, Asturias, Cantabria, Navarre, La Rioja, Aragón, Extremadura, Murcia, and the North African exclave cities of Ceuta and Melilla.

In Catalonia, the healthcare areas of Terres de l’Ebre (Tarragona), Camp de Tarragona (Tarragona) and Alt Pirineu-Aran (Lleida) will move to Phase 2.

“All of Spain is going to be in at least Phase 1. And 47% of the population will be in Phase 2,” said Illa on Friday.

The minister also announced that, starting on Monday, all reports concerning regions moving to Phase 1 will be made public “in a transparency effort.” Regional officials had been requesting to see these documents repeatedly.

Situation in Madrid

What began as a health issue had lately taken on political overtones, with Madrid’s center-right government suggesting that it was being held back for no good reason by Spain’s governing coalition of the Socialist Party (PSOE) and the leftist Unidas Podemos group.

Madrid even took its case to the Supreme Court because “we have serious reservations about whether technical criteria are being applied in the same way across all the regions,” according to the regional health chief, Enrique Ruiz-Escudero.

Regional premier Isabel Díaz Ayuso, of the Popular Party (PP), has expressed support for a growing wave of anti-government demonstrations where marchers claim that their freedoms are being curtailed by the confinement measures. “Just wait until people really go out on the street – the events of Núñez de Balboa are going to seem like a joke then,” she said in mid-May, alluding to protests that began on a well-known street in Madrid’s upscale Salamanca neighborhood.

The Madrid region has taken its case to the Supreme Court

It was the second rejection that really fueled the political battle, with Madrid authorities demanding to know the identity of the experts on the technical committee that is behind the phase-change decisions.

On Thursday, Díaz Ayuso used an ongoing row over a deal between the central government and the Basque radical party EH Bildu to reiterate her point. “If the PSOE is capable of signing off on the working future of all Spaniards with Bildu, how likely is it that it bothered to create a committee with good criteria and transparency to study the phase changes and the working future of Madrileños?” she tweeted.

Technical criteria

It is still unclear whether Madrid region will remain in Phase 1 for one week, as requested by regional authorities, or for 14 days, following government guidelines on the duration of each phase.

When the region first applied for Phase 1 status on May 7, Madrid’s general director of Public Health, Yolanda Fuentes, handed in her resignation because she disagreed with the move, saying that it was too early to do so. At that point, there was no protocol in place for the detection and tracing of coronavirus cases in the primary care network.

Madrid remains one of the territories with the highest number of daily coronavirus infections and deaths, as well as the region with the highest number of recoveries. On Thursday, there were 1,464 hospitalized patients, including 277 in intensive care units, and 19 people had died in the previous 24-hour period. A total of 8,931 coronavirus victims have died since the beginning of the crisis, according to official records. But the real figure could be closer to 14,246 according to data obtained from regional agencies that takes into account not only hospitals but also care facilities – senior residences have been hard hit by the virus – and private homes.

The region has also shown limited capacity to carry out enough PCR lab tests to keep tabs on the virus, and has not sufficiently developed its early-detection and case tracing plan. The Health Ministry cited these as reasons for turning down Madrid’s phase-change request on two occasions.

On Thursday, the regional health department said that Madrid’s PCR testing capacity has increased. “In the primary healthcare system alone, between four and five tests are being done daily at every health center. That is an average of 1,300 a day between the 306 facilities that are open,” said the department in a release.

The region introduced a plan for early detection and follow-up of coronavirus cases in the primary care system on May 11, three days after making its first request to the central government. The second request was rejected because “it is necessary for the system to consolidate in the coming days to achieve greater safety and to visualize its complete capacity for detection, diagnosis, isolation and tracing of confirmed cases and their contacts.”

English version by Susana Urra.

More information