Impasse between Madrid, central government continues as coronavirus cases spiral out of control in the region

Health Minister Salvador Illa warns that “much tougher measures” will be needed if action is not taken soon

Health Minister Salvador Illa (2nd l) and Madrid‘s regional health chief Enrique Ruiz Escudero (2nd r) at a meeting on Monday.
Health Minister Salvador Illa (2nd l) and Madrid‘s regional health chief Enrique Ruiz Escudero (2nd r) at a meeting on Monday.Comunidad de Madrid (Europa Press)

Despite another meeting on Monday, the positions of the Spanish government and the Madrid administration about the coronavirus situation in the region continue to be distant. The central government believes that the epidemic is out of control in Madrid, and that more restrictive measures need to be implemented. The regional government, meanwhile, continues to insist that the situation is under control and is even improving.

Since the end of the state of alarm in June, Spain’s regions have been responsible for controlling the coronavirus health crisis. The situation in Madrid, however, has greatly worsened in recent weeks and indeed, the entire country has been plunged into a second wave of the epidemic sooner than many health experts had expected.

The central and Madrid governments met on Monday with the weekend epidemiological data at hand, in a bid to negotiate a way out of the ongoing impasse. But the meeting ended without a deal, with the threat of central government intervention in the air and with another meeting scheduled on Tuesday – this time of the team that was created after the Socialist Party (PSOE) Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez sat down with regional premier Isabel Díaz Ayuso of the conservative Popular Party (PP) last Monday in a bid to find a way forward to jointly deal with the crisis.

Madrid continues to present nearly 40% of cases in our country. And the positivity rate of PCR tests is 20.7%, nearly double what we have in the rest of Spain
Health Minister Salvador Illa

After the meeting, which lasted more than two hours, the Spanish Health Minister Salvador Illa held a press conference to report what had been discussed with the Madrid health chief, Enrique Ruiz Escudero. He conveyed several contradictory messages, however, on the one hand insisting that the epidemic in Madrid is out of control, saying that “we are late” in dealing with the situation and stating that the stricter measures that the central government wants to see in the region should be implemented “immediately.”

On the other hand, he refused to set a time limit for the regional government to take notice of what he referred to as his government’s “recommendations.” The ministry is not there to “supervise nor impose,” he explained, but rather to help. He did not mention the possibility of the central government intervening in the region, despite reporters insisting on the point during the round of questions at last night’s press conference. “We are where we are,” he repeated. “We are not in that scenario.” The situation, he said at least five times, is one of “urging” Madrid to act. How long will the government wait if Madrid continues to resist? He did not answer.

Illa, who spoke at the press conference last night with Fernando Simón, the director of the Health Ministry’s Coordination Center for Health Alerts (CCAES), called on the regional premier to “allow us to help” and to “follow the recommendations” set out by the ministry to control the epidemic in her territory, which would include restricting mobility in the Spanish capital and not just in the 45 basic healthcare areas that are currently affected. Another measure that the government wants to see is a reduction in capacity in bars, and the total prohibition of consumption at counters.

The minister pointed to the current figures in Madrid: 13,449 new cases reported in the region on Monday, “the highest figure of the second wave,” and 1,458 more than reported the previous week. “I’m going to talk about data and science,” he said by way of introduction. “Madrid continues to present nearly 40% of cases in our country. And the positivity rate of PCR tests is 20.7%, nearly double what we have in the rest of Spain.” All of the data he cited came from the daily report from the Health Ministry that is put together based on figures supplied by the country’s regions.

The Madrid regional government continues to insist that the pandemic is under control and is even improving

Isabel Díaz Ayuso, meanwhile, on Monday chose to focus on hospitalizations in the region. In a tweet she published while the meeting of the health chiefs was taking place, she wrote: “Hospital admissions due to Covid have fallen in the last week (-66%) and they are also down in the [intensive care units] (-11%). We have inverted the trend over the weekend too: fewer admissions than there were seven days ago. Our health strategy is working.” But none of this data can be attributed to the current restrictions in Madrid, given that they have not been in place long enough to have had an effect – neither in terms of new cases, nor in terms of hospital admissions, which are registered days after infections.

The cumulative incidence of coronavirus cases rose again on Monday after a slight fall last week. The region has gone from 721 cases per 100,000 inhabitants over the last two weeks to 775 in just three days. “We should be under no illusions, some very tough, complicated weeks are coming, during which we need to act with determination to control the pandemic,” warned Illa. “If we don’t do so we will have to take much tougher measures,” he added, the only phrase during his appearance at the press conference that could be interpreted as a threat to the Madrid regional government.

“We can’t accept any kind of imposition,” said Madrid health chief Enrique Ruiz Escudero at his own press conference after the health minister had spoken. The regional politician confirmed that there are no dates on the table for a possible intervention and that each administration has committed to further meetings. “The ministry is sticking to its position and ours has never changed,” sources close to the regional premier reported on Monday. Illa, for his part, said on Monday that he trusted in the meeting that is due to take place on Tuesday and that he continues to speak to the regional government from a position of “institutional loyalty.”

English version by Simon Hunter.

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