The Spanish government has declared a state of emergency in Madrid and the surrounding region to combat rising cases of coronavirus.
It follows a ruling by the high court in Madrid on Thursday, which rejected measures forced on the region by the central government, including the partial lockdown of the Spanish capital and nine neighbouring municipalities.
The move on Friday by Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s government takes immediate effect and last for two weeks. It forces the authorities in Madrid to restore travel restrictions that had been brought in by the government but were struck down by the court ruling.
The measures mean all non-essential trips in and out of the capital and nine of its suburbs are prohibited, affecting some 4.8 million people.
They also mean renewed restrictions on bars and restaurants, stores, sports venues, gyms and hairdressers — and limit to six the number of people able to meet in public or private.
Spain’s interior minister said 7,000 police would be deployed to enforce the restrictions. Officers duly began carrying out checks on Friday.
The government wanted to act quickly as Monday is a public holiday and it wanted to prevent thousands of city-dwellers heading out of the area for the weekend.
Emergency follows court ruling
The state of emergency declared by the national government is the latest twist in a tug-of-war with Madrid authorities over efforts to fight the spread of the coronavirus, in a region experiencing one of Europe’s worst outbreaks.
It followed Thursday’s successful legal challenge by officials in the capital against restrictions imposed by the centre-left national coalition led by Sanchez’s Socialist Party and Unidas Podemos.
Madrid’s conservative regional government opposed the constraints, saying they were draconian and hurt the economy. It argued that more moderate measures were enough to fight the virus.
The court agreed, saying such restrictions on freedom could not be introduced without bringing in a state of alarm.
It “rejected the ratification (of the measures), because they harmed the fundamental rights and freedoms” of the 4.5 million inhabitants affected by the partial lockdown, which came into force a week ago, the court said in a statement.
The national government said late on Thursday night that Sánchez had spoken by telephone with Madrid’s conservative regional premier Isabel Díaz Ayuso and gave her an ultimatum. Sánchez reportedly told Ayuso that if she did not quickly tighten measures or make a formal request for his national government to declare a state of emergency, then his government would go ahead and declare it anyway.
A state of emergency gives the national government extraordinary powers in time of crises to temporarily limit the constitutional rights of citizens. In this case, it limits their freedom of movement by restarting perimeter controls on Madrid and some nearby towns also suffering from high contagion rates.
COVID-19 power struggle
Ayuso had previously been unwilling to implement harsher COVID-19 measures arguing they would cause further damage to the economy, but on Thursday she asked inhabitants not to leave the city.
“We once again ask all residents not to leave Madrid and to follow all health recommendations, especially in the coming days with the extended weekend,” she said, referring to a national holiday on Monday.
Spain’s national government ordered two weeks of new restrictions that started at 10 pm last Friday a week ago, despite pushback from regional officials.
But Madrid’s autonomous authority clashed with Spain’s central government over the order, saying it would comply but would simultaneously challenge it in the courts.
Madrid is leading the resurgence of the virus in Spain, which has Europe’s highest cumulative caseload — 870,000 confirmed cases since the onset of the pandemic.
The surge of cases in the Spanish capital has hit hospitals hard, with officials saying that over 40% of the region’s ICU capacity is now being used to treat COVID-19 patients.
The bickering between Madrid’s conservative-led government and Sánchez, the leader of the Socialist Party, has angered many Spaniards who find it petty to use a public health tragedy for political skirmishing.