Madrid announces new restrictions on mobility to curb spike in Covid-19 cases

The new measures will affect 37 basic health areas in the capital and in other municipalities with a very high incidence of coronavirus

Madrid premier Isabel Díaz Ayuso at a press conference on Friday.
Madrid premier Isabel Díaz Ayuso at a press conference on Friday.JuanJo Martín (EFE)

The Madrid regional government on Friday announced new restrictions aimed at curbing the rising number of coronavirus cases in the region. The order will go into effect on Monday and last for at least 14 days.

The restrictions on mobility affect people living within 37 basic health areas, of which 26 are located in six districts of the city of Madrid, and the rest in other municipalities in the Madrid region. People will be allowed in and out for essential activities such as going to school or work, or to care for dependents. Social gatherings are reduced to six people and public parks will remain closed. Capacity at stores and other commercial establishments is set at 50% and closing time is 10pm with the exception of pharmacies and gas stations.

The affected areas are home to around 855,193 people or 17% of the population of the Madrid region, although they account for 25% of detected coronavirus cases. “We are aware that if don’t take these measures, the situation will be worse in a few days," said the deputy premier of the Madrid region, Ignacio Aguado.

A basic health area is much smaller than a city district and can include several primary healthcare centers. There are around 286 basic health areas in the Madrid region, according to the regional health department.

We are aware that if don’t take these measures, the situation will be worse in a few days
Ignacio Aguado, deputy premier of the Madrid region

Affected municipalities besides the capital are Fuenlabrada (the health areas of Alicante, Cuzco and Francia), Parla (San Blas and Isabel II), San Sebastián de los Reyes (Reyes Católicos), Getafe (Las Margaritas and Sánchez Morate), Alcobendas (Chopera and Miraflores) and the entire towns of Humanes and Moraleja de Enmedio.

In the city of Madrid, the affected health areas are located in the city districts of Carabanchel (the health areas of Puerta Bonita, Vista Alegre and Guayaba), Usera (Almendrales, Las Calesas, Zofío, Orcasur and San Fermín), Villaverde (San Andrés, San Cristóbal, El Espinillo and Los Rosales), Villa de Vallecas, Puente de Vallecas (Entrevías, Martínez de la Riva, San Diego, Numancia, Peña Prieta, Pozo del Tío Raimundo, Ángela Uriarte, Alcalá de Guadaira and Federica Montseny), and Ciudad Lineal (Doctor Cirajas, Ghandi, Daroca and La Elipa).

Delayed announcement

Madrid premier Isabel Díaz Ayuso of the Popular Party (PP) was meant to announce the new measures at 11.30am, but the news conference was pushed back until 1pm, and then cancelled. It was not until 5pm that the conservative politician appeared before reporters at the headquarters of the Madrid government.

“There are 37 basic health areas where the incidence is very high, over 1,000 for every 100,000 people in the last 14 days, and we are forced to take a series of measures in these specific areas,” said Díaz Ayuso. “These areas have particularly high population density and connectivity. We need above all measures to ensure that quarantines are observed."

According to Díaz Ayuso, both the central and regional governments are going to work together to contain transmission in the region. “We have to avoid a state of alarm at all costs. And above all we need to avoid a confinement, an economic disaster," said the regional premier. “The head of Spain’s government is not coming here as a guardian of the Madrid region, but to cooperate with it."

According to the regional authorities, the delay was “exclusively due to the complex legal assessment” that was required before the measures could be included in the health department’s new order. Sources close to the Madrid government said that the meeting prior to the news conference had not been “easy” or “relaxed.”

Call for help

On Thursday, Madrid regional officials had asked the central government to get “actively involved” in containing the spread of Covid-19. Shortly after this public appeal for help, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez offered to hold a face-to-face meeting with Díaz Ayuso, who accepted the invitation. According to government sources, the meeting will take place at noon on Monday at the premier’s office.

Under Spain’s system of devolved powers, regional governments are in charge of healthcare policy. Throughout the duration of the 99-day state of alarm declared by Sánchez in mid-March, Madrid officials had complained that the temporary centralization of powers was depriving them of the possibility of effectively handling the crisis. The center-right Madrid government accused the central executive, led by a leftist coalition of the Socialist Party (PSOE) and Unidas Podemos, of mishandling the Covid-19 crisis. But ever since the emergency state was lifted in June, Madrid has been recording increasingly worrisome coronavirus infection, death and hospitalization figures, evidencing that the regional government is struggling to deal with the situation.

In a bid to curb contagion, the Madrid regional government introduced a raft of new restrictions in September, including limiting social meetings to 10 people, and reducing the capacity at funeral homes and religious ceremonies, such as weddings, baptisms and communions. But with cases continuing to rise, Madrid’s deputy health chief, Antonio Zapatero, warned on Thursday that “more drastic” measures were needed. Other Madrid government officials immediately walked back those statements, leading to confusion as to what residents might expect over the weekend.

Epicenter of the crisis

After it was badly hit during the first wave, Madrid has once again become the epicenter of the coronavirus crisis in Spain. According to the latest epidemiological monitoring report published on Thursday by the Spanish Health Ministry, the average incidence of the coronavirus in the last 14 days in the Madrid region came in at 659 cases per 100,000 people. This is more than double the national average of 260 cases.

According to the latest figures, Madrid reported 1,301 new coronavirus cases, and added 4,902 to the historical season. The city district with the highest infection rate is Puente de Vallecas, with 1,240.76 per 100,000 inhabitants, while Humanes is the municipality with the highest rate, which is at 1,058.60 cases.

Residents of  Puente de Vallecas, the Madrid district with the highest Covid-19 incidence rate, on Wednesday.
Residents of Puente de Vallecas, the Madrid district with the highest Covid-19 incidence rate, on Wednesday. Olmo Calvo

Hospitals in the region have come under increased pressure due to the spike in cases, with 21% of hospital beds occupied by Covid-19 patients, compared to the national average of 8.6%. A total of 3,323 coronavirus patients are currently in hospital, and another 409 are in intensive care. In the last seven days, 138 people have died from Covid-19 in the region. Unions have also complained that Madrid’s primary healthcare system has been stretched to the limit, with doctors seeing more than 80 patients in a single shift.

The Spanish capital is at the heart of the country’s railway and road networks, besides being home to its biggest international airport. Hundreds of thousands of trips are made each day by residents of nearby regions (Castilla-La Mancha and Castilla y León) who commute to Madrid for work. As a result, the evolution of the disease in Madrid is a national issue. A rise in cases in the region has a ripple effect on the rest of the country.

Political response

The leader of the PP, Pablo Casado, defended the Madrid premier on Friday, arguing that the central government was responsible for handling the coronavirus crisis – even though his party had demanded for powers to be returned to the regions towards the end of the state of alarm.

“Pandemics and epidemics are the exclusive responsibility of national governments, as much as the PSOE and Podemos seek to shift their negligence to the regional authorities,” said Casado. “What we are seeing in this second wave is an example of cowardliness, disloyalty and irresponsibility that I have never seen anywhere else in the world."

The Madrid regional government is run by a coalition between the PP and center-right Ciudadanos (Citizens), with the support of the far-right Vox, but the two parties have clashed on several issues, including the management of senior residences during the first coronavirus wave.

As tensions within the coalition mount, there are growing calls for a no-confidence vote against Díaz Ayuso. On Friday, the leader of the leftist Más Madrid called for PSOE to back the move, arguing: “The situation in Madrid is out of control, it’s a disaster, and neither Ayuso nor her Ciudadanos partners or her Vox partners are able to manage it.”

A foretold problem

The Madrid region entered the new normality when the state of alarm ended on June 21, without having passed through Phase 3 of the national deescalation plan. In order to move to this final stage, regional authorities needed to show that they had strengthened the primary healthcare sector and public health – which they failed to do.

Now, three months after the end of the state of alarm, the Madrid government still has not met these basic requirements. In May, it promised to hire 400 contact tracers, but in July, it only had 142. This translated to one contact tracker per 47,080 inhabitants, far below the international recommended standard of one per 5,500. Only this month has the government begun to hire more contact tracing staff.

English version by Susana Urra and Melissa Kitson.

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