Seven months after it implemented the first state of alarm in a bid to contain the coronavirus epidemic, the Spanish Cabinet will be meeting today to approve the emergency situation once again, for just the fourth time since Spain returned to democracy at the end of the 1970s. Ministers will be meeting at 10am, after the majority of the country’s regional governments either formally requested the move or expressed their support for it. The situation will give them the legal framework they need to restrict fundamental rights such as freedom of movement, after regional courts in many areas rejected coronavirus measures they have been trying to implement.
This time around, the government is seeking a state of alarm that will last a number of weeks, in order to try to stop the second wave of the coronavirus in Spain. The Valencia region, for example, has suggested putting a nighttime curfew in place until December 9.
The decree that will be approved on Sunday, however, can only put the emergency situation in place for 15 days, according to the Spanish Constitution. But the text will make clear that the government intends to extend the situation for more time, most likely in excess of the usual 15-day extensions that were voted on by the Congress of Deputies during the first wave of the virus, sources from the executive told EL PAÍS. Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez of the Socialist Party (PSOE) is hoping he can count on sufficient support for this extension and put it to a vote just once, thus avoiding the tortuous parliamentary process he faced earlier this year.
Sánchez heads up a coalition government with junior partner Unidas Podemos. The coalition lacks a working majority in Congress meaning that support from other groups is needed in order to pass legislation. At the outset of the pandemic, the government counted on the backing of opposition parties but this waned as the crisis deepened, and by June Sánchez no longer had the votes he needed to extend the state of alarm further and full powers to control the epidemic were returned to the regions.
The five regions that are governed by the main opposition Popular Party (PP) – including Madrid – have so far not expressed their explicit support for a state of alarm. Two PSOE-led administrations – Aragón and the Canary Islands – have not requested it but they are backing it. The remaining 10 – the Basque Country, Asturias, Extremadura, La Rioja, Catalonia, Navarre, Cantabria, Valencia, Castilla-La Mancha and the Balearic Islands – requested the emergency situation in writing between Friday and Saturday. Nationalist parties and Ciudadanos, in the case of the North African exclave city of Melilla, have also backed the request. This means that the coalition government should have sufficient votes in Congress to extend the state of alarm, but it is seeking the support of the PP for the measures also.
Today’s Cabinet meeting will also have to define exactly which measures to take. A state of alarm – the lowest of three emergency situations available to the government – is a tool that allows measures to be taken, but does not involve any specific measures in itself. There will not be a lockdown of citizens in their homes, as was the case in March. In fact, this is what the central government and the regional administrations want to avoid at all costs. Health Minister Salvador Illa has been insisting for days that this is the best mechanism in order to implement a measure that the majority of the regions are requesting: a curfew in order to avoid contagions during nighttime social life, one of the sources of infection that is causing most concern.
After declaring the state of alarm, the Cabinet can delegate all powers to the regions, but it could also resort to a document that was agreed on by the regional governments on Thursday in order to impose measures on those areas that are in situations of high risk. There is no official evaluation so far of which regions these would be, but according to the agreed criteria, Aragón, Castilla-La Mancha, Castilla y León, Madrid, Catalonia, Navarre and La Rioja, as well as the cities of Ceuta and Melilla, have all surpassed the agreed indicators for action to be taken.
English version by Simon Hunter.