Spain’s prime minister has challenged the country’s regional governments to request emergency powers to deal with the coronavirus crisis as a blame game erupts over the escalating number of cases.
Pedro Sánchez left the door open to a partial resumption of the state of alert, the extraordinary legal order that gave his administration sweeping powers during the depths of the crisis. He also offered the support of the military to help flagging regional efforts to track and trace Covid infections.
At present Spain is suffering by far the worst coronavirus rates in Europe, with 176 cases per 100,000 population in the past 14 days, compared with levels of 22.5 in the UK, 16 in Italy and 63 in France. In Madrid, the most affected area, more than 25,000 cases have been diagnosed in the past two weeks — but the region has only about 550 dedicated tracking staff.
In figures released on Tuesday, the Spanish health ministry registered more than 7,000 new coronavirus cases, 2,415 of them diagnosed the previous day.
“We cannot permit the pandemic to once again take over our lives, as it did in the spring,” Mr Sánchez told a press conference. “We have to take control and bend this second curve that is rising again in a threatening way — as soon as possible and as efficiently as possible . . . The state of alert is at the disposition of the government as it was during the spring.”
But, in what appeared to be a clear reference to Madrid, where his opponents in the centre-right People’s party lead the regional government, Mr Sánchez said that it was up to the regions to ask for a state of alert if they needed it — although his government would support such a request. He added that the extraordinary powers granted by the measure would be wielded by the regions and would not necessarily imply a lockdown.
Under the Spanish constitution it is the role of the central government to decree a state of alert, whose prolongation after an initial period of 15 days must be backed by parliament. The country’s laws also establish that a region can ask the central government to take such a step.
The PP was quick to reject Mr Sánchez’s suggestion. “Right now, there is no one at the helm,” said Pablo Casado, the centre-right party’s leader, criticising the prime minister for washing his hands of the crisis. “There is a halfway point between . . . the state of alert and not doing anything.” The PP has called for changes to Spain’s health law to facilitate targeted lockdowns without the need of a state of alert.
“This is a blame game,” said Pablo Simón, professor of politics at Madrid’s Carlos III University. “The [regional] government of Madrid will never want to ask for a state of alert unless things get much worse because it involves recognising that they can’t control the situation. But we may yet arrive at that point.”
He added that “the political dynamic in Spain is about fights between parties, regions and the central government to divide up the political cost of taking decisions, which slows things down.”
By contrast with countries such as Italy, where the state of alert remains in place until October 15, Spain’s expired on June 21. Winning parliamentary support every two weeks to prolong the measure had become increasingly difficult for Mr Sánchez’s minority administration.
As a result, regional administrations have regained their responsibility for health policy from the central administration.
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But, in a ruling late last week, a judge threw out measures the Madrid region had sought to put in place to combat the rise in infection rates — such as the closure of night clubs and restrictions on people smoking outdoors. The judge argued that fundamental rights could only be impeded if a measure such as a state of alert was in place.
A further issue is the patchwork of different health systems operated by the regions, which, almost six months into the crisis, has left the central government unable to say how many trackers and tracers the country has as a whole.
Mr Sánchez said that tracking efforts could be aided not just by the 2,000 military staff the central government was making available to the regions but also by using a nationwide app which to date only seven out of 17 regions have fully joined.