MADRID (AFP) - Spain's government on Friday (Oct 9) declared a state of emergency in the Madrid area to enforce a partial lockdown to curb rampant virus infections, overriding opposition from the regional authorities.
"The government has decided to declare a state of emergency... for the next 15 days," said Health Minister Salvador Illa following an urgent two-hour Cabinet meeting.
The measure, which comes into effect immediately, was rushed through ahead of a long holiday weekend for Spain's National Day on Oct 12, raising concerns people could take advantage of the legal limbo to head out of town.
Ministers met a day after a bombshell court ruling which effectively cancelled mobility restrictions on 4.5 million people in and around the capital to slow the rapid spread of the virus.
The court ruling had been welcomed by Madrid's right-wing regional authorities, which had opposed the partial lockdown over its economic impact.
But in a late-night phone call, Spain's socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez issued an ultimatum to regional leader Isabel Diaz Ayuso: either the region passed the measures itself, or the government would declare a state of emergency to push them through.
"Protecting the health of Madrid's people is absolutely essential," insisted Mr Illa, saying 66 people had died over the past week and some 500 were "fighting for their lives in intensive care".
"Patience has a limit," he said, pointing the finger at Madrid's leaders for failing to act.
"Measures must be taken to protect the health of the people of Madrid and to prevent this from spreading to other regions."
'IF THEY DON'T, WE WILL'
The court refused to ratify the measures because they were imposed by the central government and not by the regional authorities who manage public healthcare.
By imposing a state of emergency, the government now has the legal right to enforce the earlier measures.
Initially imposed on Oct 2, the restrictions barred residents of the capital and nine nearby towns from leaving the city limits except for work, school or on medical grounds.
They also impose a 11pm curfew on bars and restaurants and reduce indoor seating capacity by half.
Ahead of the Cabinet meeting, deputy prime minister Carmen Calvo said the government's pleas had fallen on deaf ears.
"We have only one objective: to protect Madrid. If the region cannot do it, we will," Mr Calvo said.
CALL FOR RESPONSIBILITY
Madrid's health chief Enrique Ruiz Escudero said it was "very difficult to understand" the imposition of a state of emergency when regional restrictions put in place several weeks ago were paying off.
On Sept 21, Madrid had imposed a partial lockdown on dozens of areas based on data from local health authorities, which were expanded a week later to cover more than a million residents.
But such measures were overridden by the partial lockdown order of Oct 2.
Despite the standoff, the Madrid authorities had urged residents to stay within city limits.
Meanwhile, a group of scientific and medical organisations representing 170,000 professionals published a letter online pleading for an end to the political infighting.
"You must accept, once and for all, that to deal with the pandemic, key decisions must be based on the best available scientific evidence and completely disconnected from the ongoing political confrontation," it said.
The infection rate in the region of Madrid currently stands at 564 cases per 100,000 people, compared with just 257 in the rest of Spain, which is the highest in the European Union.