Spanish government resists pressure to extend state of alarm

The Basque Country wants the extraordinary measure to remain in place as it tackles a surge in coronavirus cases, but the executive is counting on the Covid-19 vaccination drive to flatten the curve

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez (l) at a meeting to discuss the coronavirus situation on Monday.Borja Puig de la Bellacasa/Moncl (Moncloa/EFE)

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez is standing by his intention to let the state of alarm expire on May 9 even as several regions are calling for it to be extended. For the past six months, the emergency measure has given the country’s regional governments the power to introduce coronavirus restrictions that limit fundamental rights – such as nighttime curfews and perimetral lockdowns – without facing legal challenges in the courts.

Health and legal experts now fear that without the state of alarm, the regions – which are in charge of managing the pandemic in their territories – will be thrown into a legal limbo that will hurt efforts to control the spread of the coronavirus.

These concerns were shared by Iñigo Urkullu, the premier of Spain’s Basque Country, who on Monday asked Sánchez to extend the state of alarm. According to the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) leader, without the legal framework of the emergency situation, the regions will not have the “working capacity” or “legal guarantees” to adopt the measures needed to curb the pandemic, such as the curfew, restrictions on mobility and the ban on social gatherings between members of different households, as they restrict fundamental rights.

Basque leader Iñigo Urkullu (l) with regional health chief Gotzone Sagardui.
Basque leader Iñigo Urkullu (l) with regional health chief Gotzone Sagardui.Luis Tejido (EL PAÍS)

Having the legal backing to implement such measures is of particular importance to the Basque Country, which has seen a recent surge in coronavirus cases. According to the latest figures, the 14-day cumulative number of cases per 100,000 inhabitants in the region is 411, compared to the national average of 149. On Sunday, 125 Covid-19 patients were in intensive care units (ICUs), the worst figure since the beginning of March. In a bid to control the rising number of infections, 50 cities, including Bilbao and Vitoria, are now under a perimetral lockdown, meaning no one can enter or leave without a justified reason, such as to go to work.

The Basque government also has first-hand experience of the legal rigmarole that can result without the state of alarm. In August last year, the Basque High Court suspended the region’s order that forced nighttime venues to close at 1.30am, then two months later it refused to authorize a six-person limit on social gatherings.

But it is not just the Basque government that has asked Sánchez to extend the state of alarm. The same request has also been made by the regional governments of Andalusia, Galicia, Murcia and Cantabria.

There are still months to go before we reach herd immunity
Iñigo Urkullu, premier of Spain’s Basque Country

Despite this pressure, the Spanish government – which is headed by a coalition of the Socialist Party (PSOE) and junior partner Unidas Podemos – does not intend to extend the state of alarm beyond May 9. Although a final decision has not been made, given that this will depend on the epidemiological data, the executive is sticking by its plan to let the emergency measure expire. The goal is to allow the regions to apply the measures they see fit, such as closing down bars and restaurants and setting earlier opening hours for businesses, but not to impose a curfew or restrict movement between the regions. Finance Minister and government spokesperson María Jesús Montero said that if the executive did decide to ask for the extension to the state of alarm it would do so on the recommendation of health experts, not because the regions “are putting pressure on or not.”

The government is convinced that the epidemiological data will improve in the coming weeks as the Covid-19 vaccination drive takes effect. According to La Moncloa, the seat of government in Spain, more than five million people will have had at least their first shot of the Covid-19 vaccine by May 9, and the country will be racing toward the goal of immunizing 33 million people (70% of the adult population) by the end of August. With this context in mind, the government believes it is better not to extend the state of alarm again.

But Basque leader Urkullu is arguing that it is important for the regions to have the legal backing of the emergency measure while the vaccination drive takes place. “There are still months to go before we reach herd immunity,” he said Monday in a radio interview.

For La Moncloa, it is also important to send the message that the state of alarm is coming to an end as this will help reactivate the economy, which has been hit hard by the coronavirus crisis. Although the central government is continuing to call for prudence, it wants Spain to gradually move to a new phase that, while not a full return to normality, is more open. Indeed, the regions most dependent on tourism, the Canary and Balearic islands, are already beginning to accept visitors from the rest of Spain.

Political implications

In order for the state of alarm to be extended, the measure would have to be voted through Spain’s lower house, the Congress of Deputies. As a minority government, the executive does not have enough votes to approve the extension by itself, meaning it needs the support of other parties.

This may be a challenge if the conservative Popular Party (PP) votes against the extension, as it did twice last year. However, it is more likely that the group would abstain from the vote, which is what it did when the six-month extension to the emergency measure came before Congress in October last year.

The debate over the state of alarm also threatens to create tensions with the Basque Nationalist Party, whose votes the government depends on to pass key legislation.

What’s more, the countdown to the end of the state of alarm comes as Madrid prepares to vote in an early regional election. The response to the pandemic is a key campaign issue, with Madrid premier Isabel Díaz Ayuso (PP) staking her claim on her decision not to introduce tough restrictions on the hospitality industry despite the rise in coronavirus cases. She will face former deputy prime minister Pablo Iglesias of Unidas Podemos at the poll on May 4 – just days before the emergency measure is set to expire.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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