Madrid pledges 1 million Covid-19 tests to avoid 'disastrous' lockdown

Regional President Isabel Diaz Ayuso announced the testing blitz, saying Madrid needed to "use all means at our disposal" to avoid a lockdown. PHOTO: AFP

MADRID (BLOOMBERG) - The regional government of Madrid is aiming to test 1 million people - about 13 per cent of the population - for Covid-19 over the next week in a desperate battle to avert another lockdown.

Regional President Isabel Diaz Ayuso announced the testing blitz on Friday (Sept 18) as she imposed a ban on all non-essential movement in 37 hotspots in and around the Spanish capital where the infection rate has spiked above 1,000 per 100,000 people. That means more than 1 per cent of the local community has been infected in the past two weeks.

Madrid has become the epicentre of the Spanish outbreak as governments around Europe battle to contain a resurgence in infections that is threatening to undermine the recovery.

Across the continent alarm is growing that officials may be forced to return to the kind of harsh restrictions that shut down much of the economy during the first part of the year.

"Another lockdown would be an economic disaster," Ayuso said at a press conference. "We need to use all means at our disposal to avoid it."

The jump in French infections of more than 10,000 on Thursday was the highest since the end of the lockdown in May with new cases in Germany gaining Friday by more than 2,000, the most since late April. Portugal on Thursday reported the most new infections in five months, with 770.

Spanish cases rose at a slower pace than the previous day but still by more than 4,500 and more than a third of those new infections were in Madrid.

Health officials are blaming the increase on social gatherings, especially among younger people, and on the summer holiday season, which made Spain particularly exposed. Politicians are reluctant to reimpose more lockdowns with voters already fed up after more than six months of disruption to daily life.

The Madrid leader is expected to meet with Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez next week to discuss the growing crisis amid speculation that the whole of the Spanish capital could be put back into lockdown.

UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock on Friday declined to rule out a second national lockdown and said the acceleration of cases and hospital admissions across Britain represents a "big moment."

In England alone, there were about 6,000 new infections per day in the community in England in the week ending Sept 10 - up from 3,200 the week before.

"The pandemic is back in most of our countries," German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier said before a video conference with European Union counterparts. "We have to make sure that the trend toward recovery in Europe isn't impeded and threatened by the rising infection numbers."

Ireland is expected to declare that most bars in Dublin will be closed from Saturday and that travel into and out of the city will be restricted, while Austria is banning indoor gatherings of more than 10 people from Monday after bars, clubs and private parties fueled new infections.

Greece on Friday a second package of measures in four days to contain the spread of the virus in the region around Athens where the number of cases has doubled in the past two weeks.

Madrid's deputy head of public health caused a public outcry on Wednesday when he unexpectedly announced that authorities would order selective lockdowns and limit meetings in the areas suffering the worst outbreaks. The move angered some members of the ruling coalition and prompted rumours of a no-confidence vote in Ayuso's center-right government.

Ayuso has been one of fiercest critics of Sanchez's Socialist-led national coalition and protested angrily when the capital was among the last places to emerge from lockdown in May.

But since the central government handed control of the crisis back to the regions, Ayuso has to make the decision over whether to impose fresh restrictions and she's looking for political cover through a meeting with the premier.

"The region of Madrid has been alone for too long," she said on Twitter on Thursday. "I celebrate the fact that the prime minister has finally agreed to meet with me."

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