Madrid starts partial virus lockdown amid political dispute

MADRID (AP) — Madrid awoke Saturday to its first day under a partial lockdown, with police controlling travel in and out of the Spanish capital as the city and its suburbs have become Europe’s biggest hot spot in the second wave of the coronavirus.

Spain’s national government ordered two weeks of new restrictions that started at 10 p.m. Friday (2000 GMT) despite reluctance from regional officials.

The measures prohibit all nonessential trips in and out of the capital and nine of its suburbs — affecting around 4.8 million people. Restaurants must close at 11 p.m. and shops at 10 p.m., and both must limit occupancy to 50% of their capacity.

Spain’s Socialist prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, said the steps were “critical” to stopping virus outbreaks and preventing a repeat of the horrific scenes of March and April, when hospitals were overrun with dying patients.

“Union is the best vaccine against COVID,” Sánchez said Saturday.

The new health standards are designed to kick in once a municipality has 500 infections per 100,000 inhabitants over 14 days and 30% of the intensive care units are occupied by COVID-19 patients.

Even though the measures are light compared with the home confinement mandated across Spain during the first wave of the virus, they have sparked a political battle between Sánchez’s left-wing coalition government and the Madrid administration run by a right-wing rival.

The Madrid government led by Isabel Díaz Ayuso of the conservative Popular Party said it would enforce the Spanish government’s orders but it also has challenged them in the National Court Ayuso and her regional ministers have said the restrictions will cause “chaos,” hurt an already weakened economy and violate their jurisdiction as regional authorities.

Ayuso’s message has reached at least some residents who see the issue as having more to do with politics than public health.

“I think we have gone to the extremes,” said Ángel Davila, a 52-year-old engineer at Atocha train station. “I think that the measures they have put in place aren’t correct. They are not based, according to what I have studied, on medical information. It is a political thing now more than anything else.”

Health experts, however, have been urging Madrid to take stronger action for weeks, but Madrid Health Chief Enrique Ruiz Escudero argued they were unnecessary.

Rafael Bengoa, the ex-health chief of Spain’s Basque Country region and an international consultant who was an advisor for U.S. President Barack Obama’s healthcare reform, said the measures that took effect in Madrid on Friday night are lax and late “due to inter-institutional and political disunion.”

“The indicators that the national government had to enforce onto the Madrid government yesterday are actually quite generous,” Bengoa told The Associated Press. “Most European countries would be in lockdown with the figures and trend Madrid has been having the past weeks.”

The Spanish Health Ministry ordered compliance after Madrid refused to accept a set of health metrics to dictate when cities with populations of 100,000 of more need to adopt heavier restrictions to curb the virus.

The measures were approved by a majority of regional health authorities from Spain’s 19 regions and autonomous cities, with Madrid in the minority against them.

The government orders only allow people to cross municipal borders to commute for work, for a medical appointment, legal errands, or appointments with a governmental administration.

The region had already applied similar measures to certain areas, and limited social gatherings to a maximum of six people, but the infections kept rising.

“These measures taken should start improving things since they will complement the already obligatory use of face masks and an improved track and trace system,” Bengoa said.

Madrid is leading the resurgence of the virus in Spain, which has Europe’s highest cumulative caseload — 770,000 confirmed cases since the onset of the pandemic.

The capital had a two-week infection rate of 695 cases per 100,000 residents Thursday, more than twice the national average of 274 cases and seven times the European average, which stood at 94 per 100,000 residents last week, according to the European Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Over 32,000 people have died from the virus in Spain, according to the Health Ministry. The true death count is likely to be much higher given the lack of testing during the first weeks of the pandemic.

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Wilson reported from Barcelona.

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