Spain’s government has declared a state of emergency in Madrid, wresting control of efforts to fight the spread of Covid-19 from local authorities in a region that is experiencing one of Europe’s most significant coronavirus outbreaks.
The step, which took immediate effect and lasts for two weeks, forced Madrid authorities to restore restrictions on travel that had been introduced by the national government but were struck down the previous day by a Madrid court ruling.
That successful legal challenge by Madrid officials was part of a long dispute between the country’s main political parties over their coronavirus response. Those differences, and the changing rules, have dismayed and confused local residents.
The government announced the state of emergency after a hastily arranged cabinet meeting in the wake of the court ruling. Health minister Salvador Illa said the previous measures would come back into force and only the legal framework for them was changing.
He told a press conference it was “undeniable” that there is community transmission in the Madrid region, not just isolated outbreaks, at a crucial juncture as winter approaches and respiratory problems increase.
“Action is needed, and today we couldn’t just stand by and do nothing,” Mr Illa said. “It’s very important that this doesn’t spread to the rest of the country.”
The Madrid region’s 14-day infection rate of 563 coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents is more than twice Spain’s national average of 256 and five times the European average rate of 113 for the week ending September 27.
The central government’s measures prohibit all non-essential trips in and out of the capital and nine of its suburbs, affecting 4.8 million people. Restaurants must close at 11pm and stores at 10pm. Both must limit occupancy to 50% of capacity.
The national government had ordered police in Madrid to fine people if they left their municipalities without justification. More than 7,000 officers will be deployed to ensure the restrictions are observed, interior minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska said.
But Madrid’s conservative regional government opposed those restrictions, saying they were draconian and damaged the economy. Madrid’s regional president, Isabel Diaz Ayuso, said her own, more moderate measures were enough to fight Covid-19.
A Madrid court on Thursday upheld the regional administration’s appeal, saying the national government’s imposition of restrictions violated fundamental liberties.
The row has taken place against a backdrop of political differences: Spain’s national government is led by the centre-left Socialist party, while the Madrid region is run by the country’s main opposition party, the conservative Popular Party.