Spain’s Health Minister Salvador Illa and Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska held a press conference on Friday afternoon to explain the government’s decision to implement a state of alarm in the Madrid region. The unilateral move was made by the coalition government on Friday after weeks of conflict with the Madrid regional authorities over the restrictions that should be implemented given the high rates of infection there. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez of the Socialist Party (PSOE), who leads a coalition government with junior partner Unidas Podemos, had given regional premier Isabel Díaz Ayuso of the conservative Popular Party (PP) until 12pm today to come up with a plan. When that deadline passed, the Cabinet implemented the state of alarm.
“The premier said that she needed time,” Illa told reporters. “Until midday today, but she decided to do nothing. Right now there are 3,361 people hospitalized in the region. We can sit here with our arms folded or we can fight against the virus. The obligation of the government is to bring down the curve, even if that means making sacrifices.”
Illa pointed to cities such as Paris, and countries such as the United Kingdom and Germany, that are currently implementing strict coronavirus measures with much lower infection rates than Madrid. “Protecting the health of Madrileños is beyond question,” he said. The restrictions introduced today include perimetral confinements of nine cities in the region, as well as social restrictions such as capacity limits in bars and restaurants and early closing times for businesses.
“Patience has its limits,” he continued, in reference to the weeks of conflict between the two administrations. “It’s very important that the level of infections in Madrid does not spread to the rest of Spain. The only thing that the Spanish government cares about is protecting people’s health.”
Urgency was needed, according to the government, given that Monday is a national holiday, and this weekend is a time when Madrileños would usually be heading out to their second residences or to the coast or countryside. “We must avoid the virus from spreading out of control this holiday weekend,” Illa explained.
The National Police and the Civil Guard deployed 7,000 officers in different parts of Madrid on Friday afternoon, in order to ensure that the new restrictions were observed. The checkpoints were not just located on freeways heading in and out of Madrid, but also at the city’s Barajas Airport and at train stations, according to police sources cited by EFE.
Traffic jams formed on the A-4 and A-5 freeways out of Madrid on Friday afternoon due to the police checks that had been set up there. Sources from the DGT traffic authority, however, reported that there was less traffic on the roads than there would be on a normal Friday.
Speaking at Friday’s press conference, Interior Minister Grande-Marlaska sought to assure the public that the measures were “not aimed at raising money” via the fines, but that “the rules be complied with.” The penalties for infractors range from €600 for an unauthorized journey to €10,400 for organizing or taking part in group activities that constitute a risk of contagion, according to a guide put together by the Interior Ministry.
Grande-Marlaska added that the state of alarm “does not involve the suspension of fundamental rights. The important thing is that everyone sticks to the regulations. The rule of law remains in force.”
“We would have preferred to take these measures with an agreement,” Illa said at the end of the press conference. “I believe that the measures adopted will bear fruit. We have to flatten the curve. This has been done in other parts of our country.”
The leader of the PP, Pablo Casado, was swift to criticize the latest move by the central government. “The Madrid region has always been loyal,” he told reporters on Friday. “What the central government wants is for the government of Díaz Ayuso to commit a breach of duty.” He went on to propose a reform to Spanish law that would provide a legal framework for such coronavirus restrictions, “so that we do not have to resort to the courts.” The Madrid High Court struck down the central government’s perimetral confinements in the region on Thursday, while the Madrid regional government had filed an appeal against them with the Spanish HIgh Court, the Audiencia Nacional.
Madrid Mayor José Luis Martínez-Almeida, who is also the PP’s spokesperson, complained via Twitter that “imposition, lack of dialogue and the government’s obsession with Madrid has triumphed.” He added that Madrileños would respect the rules, but warned that “the pandemia would not crush the city, and nor will Pedro Sánchez.”
Writing on Twitter on Friday afternoon, Deputy Prime Minister Pablo Iglesias, who is the leader of Unidas Podemos, criticized the Madrid regional government, saying that “those who have spent weeks opposing that measures be taken in Madrid not only put the health of the population at risk, but also the economy. There will be no recovery without getting the pandemic under control. The path has been obvious for some time now: more contract tracers, more healthcare workers, more public transport.”
The far-right Vox party, meanwhile, the third-biggest political force in Congress, has called a demonstration for Monday to call for the government to resign. “This government is killing us with its incompetence in the face of the virus and it is ruining us with its totalitarian and absurd measures,” wrote party leader Santiago Abascal on Twitter. As it did earlier this year, Vox has called on its supporters to take to the streets of their cities in their vehicles to protest.
Death toll nears 33,000
On Friday evening, the central Health Ministry reported 12,788 new coronavirus cases registered since yesterday. There were also 241 deaths, the second-highest number seen so far during this second wave of the epidemic. According to the government’s official figures, there have been 861,112 confirmed infections since the crisis began. The official death toll stands at 32,929 people.
English version by Simon Hunter.