CORONAVIRUS

Spain heads toward another state of alarm

Eight regions and Melilla have already called on the government to implement the emergency measure, which will not necessarily involve a lockdown like the one in the spring. The regions would, however, have greater powers to limit mobility in a bid to curb coronavirus infections

A Covid-19 patient in the ICU of the Ramón y Cajal Hospital in Madrid last week.
A Covid-19 patient in the ICU of the Ramón y Cajal Hospital in Madrid last week.Óscar del Pozo / AFP

As coronavirus infections rise across practically all of Spain, the legal tools at the disposal of the country’s regional governments are falling ever shorter to curb the spread. A state of alarm – an emergency situation that can only be declared by the central government and can limit the fundamental right of freedom of movement, among others – is looking ever more likely as the tool that Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez as well as the regions are considering. On Friday, eight of the latter conveyed their requests to the government for the emergency situation to be declared, and the government is likely to approve it at a Cabinet meeting on Sunday.

Asturias, the Basque Country, La Rioja, Catalonia, Navarre, Cantabria, Extremadura, Castilla-La Mancha and the North African exclave city of Melilla have all requested that the Cabinet implement a new state of alarm in order to impose extraordinary measures.

The Castilla y León, Murcia, Andalusia and Valencia regions have so far announced nighttime curfews, but these will have to be authorized by the courts before they can be enforced. Madrid announced on Friday that it would be doing something similar, limiting business activity and social meetings between midnight and 6am, but not restricting movement.

In the meantime, the government – a coalition of the Socialist Party and junior partner Unidas Podemos, and which lacks a working majority in Congress – is seeking support from other parties and the regions themselves to ensure it has the necessary backing to implement the emergency measure. The state of alarm introduced in March, and which saw Spaniards confined to their homes in a bid to combat the virus, was lifted by the government in June once it became clear that the central government no longer had the votes from other parties in Congress to extend the measure further.

The Basque premier, Íñigo Urkullu, stated on Friday that he was requesting the state of alarm for the whole country and that the management of the situation should be left in the hands of regional chiefs such as himself. Urkullu took the decision barely 24 hours after the regional High Court failed to authorize the more restrictive measures his government had implemented to combat the coronavirus, such as a ban on meetings in a private or public setting of more than six people. This is precisely the problem faced by the regions when trying to impose such restrictions: they are left in the hands of the courts, some of which are passing them, and some of which are rejecting them. There are no precedents as to what they will do with regard to a curfew.

“This is not to confine, this is to limit mobility,” the premier of Extremadura, Guillermo Fernández Vara, said on Friday about his request for the state of alarm. If the government does declare the emergency situation, that does not necessarily mean that Spaniards will be confined to their homes as they were in spring. In fact, that is what the authorities are trying to avoid at all costs via intermediate measures. That was according to Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, who made a televised address on Friday similar to those he made on a weekly basis during the first wave of the coronavirus. Sánchez said that he was prepared to take tough measures because, he said, “the situation is serious” and “very tough months are ahead.”

Government sources have confirmed that the executive is considering a state of alarm and that it would be used across Spain to different degrees, but Sánchez did not say whether or not such a move would depend on the support of the main opposition Popular Party (PP). All of the regional leaders to so far request the measure are either from the Socialist Party, center-right Ciudadanos or nationalist groups. None of the PP chiefs have so far done so.

The PP is one of the groups that withdrew its support for the state of alarm back in June, and on several occasions has expressed its reluctance for the measure to be introduced once more. During the first state of alarm this year, regional leaders from opposition parties argued that it was an unnecessary measure and that they had sufficient means at their disposal to handle the situation themselves. The PP-led government in Madrid was also highly critical of the central administration after it implemented a state of alarm in the region two weeks ago after failing to reach an agreement with premier Isabel Díaz Ayuso on stricter coronavirus measures.

Sánchez used his address on Friday to call for unity among administrations and citizens, in order to avoid stricter limitations on movement. But he also opened the door to taking extraordinary measures in places where the risk is particularly high.

The Health Ministry has for the last few days been planning a nighttime curfew for the entire country. Health Minister Salvador Illa has called for “clear support” to be able to implement this measure, which would also require a state of alarm. This would mean the agreement of the regions as well as support in Congress for its extension once its initial two-week period expires.

Ciudadanos has offered its votes to approve the measure and has called on the PP to offer its backing too. If it had the votes of Ciudadanos, the Catalan nationalist parties in power in the region and the PNV, the coalition government would have the majority it would need in the lower house of parliament to guarantee support. But the executive would prefer to count on the backing of the PP before going ahead.

English version by Simon Hunter.

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