Government intervention of Madrid looms as region refuses to adopt stricter coronavirus measures

The Socialist Party administration of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez is seeking a way to intervene in the region, which has the worst infection rates in Europe

A protest against the confinement measures outside Madrid regional parliament last Sunday.
A protest against the confinement measures outside Madrid regional parliament last Sunday.VÍCTOR SAINZ

The Spanish government and the Madrid regional administration are currently engaged in last-minute negotiations in a bid to avoid the former from intervening in the latter, given the resistance of the region’s premier, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, to implement stricter coronavirus measures despite having the worst infection rates in Europe.

The government of Socialist Party (PSOE) Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has been preparing a way to strengthen the restrictions across Madrid, after it emerged on Friday that the regional government – run by the conservative Popular Party (PP) in coalition with center-right Ciudadanos (Citizens) and propped up by far-right Vox – had rejected the recommendations of the Health Ministry to combat the spread of the coronavirus in the region, and was limiting itself to rolling out existing restrictions in 37 basic healthcare areas to a handful of other zones.

We have called on Madrid to revise the announced measures and to follow the recommendations of the scientists and health experts
Health Minister Salvador Illa

Ciudadanos is playing a key role in the current attempts to reach a deal, with the deputy regional premier, Ignacio Aguado of Ciudadanos, negotiating a way out of the impasse on Sunday with Health Minister Salvador Illa. If there is no deal over the next few days, the central government will intervene.

Sources from La Moncloa prime ministerial palace, the seat of government in Spain, have conveyed over the weekend that it is prepared to intervene in Madrid if there is an “urgent need.” It is likely to do this under the so-called “new normality” decree, which was passed by the government at the end of the state of alarm implemented earlier this year, and which saw Spain subject to one of the world’s strictest coronavirus lockdowns. The legislation permits the government to go over the head of a regional government and take decisions that will later be communicated to the local authorities.

The government has been ramping up the pressure on Madrid to change course and to implement stricter measures in a bid to get the pandemic under control. The Madrid region is divided into 286 basic healthcare zones. The central government is proposing the confinement of all of those where the cumulative incidence of coronavirus infections over 14 days exceeds 500 cases per 100,000 inhabitants. This would, in effect, mean the restrictions being implemented in 200 of these 286 zones, given the current figures from the region, and would affect 4.7 million people – three out of every four Madrileños. The restrictions are currently only in place in 45 healthcare zones.

For now, there is no guarantee that Ayuso is willing to change course, but Ciudadanos – via Aguado – took the first step after contacting the health minister and Carolina Darias, the central government’s minister for territorial policy.

Health Minister Salvador Illa.
Health Minister Salvador Illa.Enric Fontcuberta (EFE)

The public messages changed notably on Sunday after Aguado and Illa spoke. On Saturday, the central health chief had voiced a clear ultimatum, stating that intervention was imminent. But by Sunday he had softened his tone, albeit making it clear that Madrid would have to make a decision in the coming hours or La Moncloa would intervene.

“We have had communications with the Madrid region,” said Illa. “With the utmost institutional loyalty, we have called on them to revise the announced measures and to follow the recommendations of the scientists and health experts.”

“A political ceasefire is urgent,” said Aguado. “Madrileños deserve for us to jointly agree on measures to protect their health. We are up to the task.”

But speaking last night on Spanish television channel Antena 3, Ayuso made clear she had no intention of toughening up the coronavirus restrictions. “We are being devastated,” she said in reference to the damage to the economy. “We can’t close down everything. We have to opt for intermediate proposals,” she added, after accusing the central government of changing the criteria at the last minute “for political reasons” after having supported Madrid’s measures.

The central government is proposing the confinement of all areas with a cumulative incidence of over 500 cases per 100,000 inhabitants – a measure that would affect 4.7 million Madrileños

When the central government implemented the state of alarm in March in a bid to slow the spread of the coronavirus, it took control of many of the regions' powers. While opposition parties such as the PP initially supported the move, protests grew as the situation progressed, with regional chiefs – including Ayuso – calling for an end to the emergency situation, on the basis that the regions would be able to handle the pandemic better alone. As the situation worsened over the summer, however, and a second wave of the coronavirus started to take hold, Ayuso did an about turn and began to criticize the central government for inaction. Aguado went further, recently stating that it is “impossible to end an epidemic of these characteristics from the regional government alone.”

The intervention of the central government in Madrid will have clear legal and political difficulties and is not the best option for the prime minister. The use of the new normality decree is the lightest touch available to the administration, allowing for the widening of the partial confinement currently in place in limited areas to all of the biggest neighborhoods. This would not involve a lockdown like that of March, but simply limit movements between neighborhoods and within the region as much as possible. That said, implementing this measure would be highly problematic without the cooperation of the regional government.

Sources from the Madrid government said that they believed that La Moncloa would not dare to intervene given the problems that this would involved. Sources from La Moncloa, meanwhile, admit that intervention is not their preferred option but warn that the decision is inevitable if the data continues to get worse.

Aguado’s maneuver was key to unblocking the negotiations, but from the central government there have been warnings that there has been no commitment to toughen up the measures and that Ayuso is still in charge, with the premier insisting that her position is the correct one and that a general confinement is not the solution. Sources close to the regional premier went as far as to say that if the Health Ministry wants to confine all the areas in Madrid that have infection rates above 500 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, they will have to do so in all of Spain.

English version by Simon Hunter.

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