CORONAVIRUS

Madrid region rebels against government plan to confine capital and nine other municipalities

Despite having agreed uniform criteria for Spanish cities in a bid to slow the coronavirus spread, the PP-run administration did a U-turn on Wednesday to the surprise of many

Spanish Health Minister Salvador Illa at a meeting of the Inter-territorial Health Committee on Wednesday.
Spanish Health Minister Salvador Illa at a meeting of the Inter-territorial Health Committee on Wednesday.EFE

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The ongoing war between the Madrid region and the central government went up a notch on Wednesday, after the former rebelled against the latter’s plan to impose new restrictions across Spain – but that would, for now, mainly affect Madrid – in a bid to halt the spread of the coronavirus.

The latest chapter in the battle between the two governments played out after an apparent deal had been reached between the Health Ministry and the Madrid deputy premier, Ignacio Aguado. In the face of the region’s worsening coronavirus figures, the ministry had agreed that new measures would be applicable to municipalities across Spain, and not just in Madrid, should certain criteria be met. However, in a shock move, the Madrid region made clear on Wednesday that it would not accept these new restrictions being imposed by the central government, and would seek legal advice should that happen.

In line with the plan that had been agreed by the Health Ministry and the Madrid deputy premier earlier this week, Spain’s Inter-territorial Health Committee – which brings together the country’s regional healthcare chiefs – voted yesterday in favor of restricting movement in municipalities that have a cumulative incidence of coronavirus cases over the last two weeks that exceeds 500 per 100,000 inhabitants, a positivity rate (the percentage of PCR tests that come back positive) above 10%, and more than 35% of available intensive care beds occupied by Covid-19 patients.

Under these criteria, 10 municipalities in the Madrid region – including the Spanish capital – would have to implement perimetral confinement measures, among other limitations. For now, they would not affect other Spanish cities.

Health Minister Salvador Illa spoke to reporters on Wednesday evening to announce that the measures will be published as a ministerial order in the Official State Gazette (BOE) “in the next few days” after the “joint agreement” was reached. Government sources confirmed that this will happen on Thursday, Carlos E. Cue reports. The measures will then need to be published by the affected regions in their respective gazettes.

But in a surprise announcement on Wednesday evening, the Madrid regional health chief, Enrique Ruiz Escudero, stated that the deal lacked legal foundation given that not all of the regions had voted in favor of the plan. He warned that “should they be published” in the BOE, the region’s legal services would study how to proceed.

The proposal, presented by the Spanish Health Ministry, was approved by a majority of the Inter-territorial Health Committee. Madrid, Galicia, Catalonia, Andalusia and the exclave city of Ceuta rejected it, while Murcia abstained – later claiming it did so by accident. The rest of Spain’s regions and territories voted in favor.

The Madrid regional government is run by the conservative Popular Party (PP) in coalition with Ciudadanos, and is propped up by far-right Vox. The PP premier of the region, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, has been highly critical of the central government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, and during the state of alarm earlier this year was calling for powers to be returned to her government on the basis it would handle the epidemic better. Since those powers were returned, however, the epidemiological situation in Madrid has worsened and the region yesterday registered a cumulative incidence of 735 cases over the past two weeks per 100,000 inhabitants. The national average in Spain for that data point is currently 284. Despite this, Ayuso has expressed her unwillingness to confine Madrid on economic grounds, and has accused the Socialist Party (PSOE) government of trying to impose strict measures on the region for political reasons.

Speaking last night, Illa said that he could not envisage that Madrid would not apply what he described as a “jointly agreed decision made by the committee." Once the restrictions are introduced, they will need to be ratified by a judge, as is the case with all measures that affect fundamental rights when a state of alarm is not in place.

Under the criteria that were approved on Wednesday, 10 cities in the Madrid region, including the Spanish capital, will have to establish a perimetral lockdown and introduce other restrictions on social gatherings. These measures are currently in place in 45 basic healthcare areas in the region, although that move – which was implemented in two stages over the last two weeks – has drawn widespread criticism for having focused in many cases on working-class neighborhoods.

The Madrid municipalities that would be confined under the new plan are the capital, Alcalá de Henares, Alcobendas, Alcorcón, Fuenlabrada, Leganés Parla, Getafe, Móstoles and Torrejón. Under the Health Ministry’s guidelines, residents in the affected zones would only be able to enter and leave for essential business, such as to go to work, to school, to take care of a dependent or for reasons of force majeure.

Social gatherings will be limited to six people, both in private and public spaces, and capacity in commercial and hostelry establishments reduced to 50%. Shops will have to close by 10pm and bars and other hostelry venues by 11pm, although new patrons will not be allowed in after 10pm. Consumption at bar counters will also be prohibited. Capacity at religious sites will be cut to one-third, while maintaining social distances, and funeral attendees reduced to 15 people in outdoor spaces and 10 indoors.

Up until now, all decisions made by the Inter-territorial Health Committee have been approved unanimously. The regions that voted against the document claimed that they want to see more criteria applied and that they be technical. “As if those that are included weren’t,” said a representative of one of the regions that is most closely observing the progress of the pandemic in Madrid, with incredulity. “The measures that were discussed today were very similar to those that we have been taking in recent weeks in nearly all the regions,” a PSOE regional chief commented.

If the central government goes ahead with its plans, it would be the first time that proposed measures are applied without the consensus of all regions during a public health crisis. José Martínez Olmos, the former health secretary general, explained that the agreement must be adhered to by all regions, whether or not they voted in favor of it. “It’s mandatory to follow the measures, even if there was not unanimity,” he explains.

The Health Ministry has said that it is open to refining the document, and even including more criteria to establish more restrictive measures, as some regions have requested. “We will work tirelessly to reach wider consensus and if possible unanimity. Yesterday there was an agreement. Today there isn’t. It is not up to me to explain why,” said Illa, in reference to Madrid’s U-turn. “The goal is to take control of the epidemic,” he added.

Regions that are run by the PSOE are indignant as to what they consider to be a strategy “agreed beforehand” by the PP regional chiefs to oppose the measures proposed by the Inter-Territorial Committee, under orders from the party leadership. “They are taking the country to a cliff edge,” said one PSOE regional chief on Wednesday. “This is a strategy of Pablo Casado, who is completely irresponsible,” he added, in reference to the PP’s national leader. “They believe that the worse things are, the better for them. They are only looking at the short term, and are afraid that Vox will gain relevance with their motion of no confidence [that will be tabled against the coalition government] and they don’t want to lose their role as the main opposition.”

Based on reporting by Pablo Linde, Isabel Valdés, Jessica Mouzo, José Marcos and Elsa García de Blas.

English version by Melissa Kitson and Simon Hunter.

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