Spanish PM Rejects New Lockdown Amid Surge in Virus Cases
(Bloomberg) -- Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez rejected a new national lockdown, putting pressure instead on regional authorities to come up with a response to the nation’s resurgent coronavirus outbreak.
In his first public comments in three weeks, Sanchez said Tuesday that the central government will provide whatever support required by the regions -- which oversee health policy -- and that they will be authorized to declare a local state of emergency if necessary.
“We need to take control, we need to flatten this second curve that is now rising in a threatening way,” Sanchez said. Spain doesn’t need the kind of lockdown that crippled the economy in the second quarter as “the conditions and the knowledge that we have of the virus are much better -- we are better prepared,” he added.
The beleaguered premier had not spoken publicly since Aug. 4, fostering the impression that the Madrid government was rudderless at a time when coronavirus infection rates were climbing at a faster pace than anywhere else in Europe.
The number of daily infections hovered close to a four-month high of more than 3,700 last week, leading a surge across the continent. The government’s top epidemiologist said that the pandemic was out of control in parts of the country. There were 2,415 new infections reported on Tuesday, up from 2,060 the previous day.
Still, the situation has improved drastically since March and April, when 16 makeshift hospitals were created to deal with the saturation of existing facilities and hundreds of people were dying every day. Currently, the number of fatalities is relatively low and stable -- 125 deaths over the previous week as of Monday -- and intensive care units aren’t full.
Meanwhile, a tentative revival of tourism -- which accounts for around 12% of the economy -- has faltered as a host of countries including Germany and the U.K. advised against traveling to Spain.
The country’s fight to contain the pandemic has been complicated by the practice of delegating authority. Health policy is managed by the 17 regional governments, with the central administration in Madrid limited to a loose coordinating role.
Sanchez’s latest approach could also be a sign of his tentative hold on power, which partly relies on separatist groups which generally oppose intervention from Madrid.
Because Sanchez was unable to stitch together a working consensus at the start of the pandemic, he took control of the health system through special powers granted under a state of emergency. He then faced repeated demands from regional presidents to hand them back and brought the state of emergency to an end in June.
Rather than lead the charge, Sanchez’s national government will now provide mainly support services for regional authorities. The armed forces will make 2,000 troops available for contact tracing if requested, he said, expanding on what was already their largest ever peacetime operation during the lockdown.
The decentralized system is also muddling the start of the school term in early September. Concerns are growing that there aren’t clear health guidelines for teachers and students. Failure to restart classes could deal another major blow to the economy, with hundreds of thousands of working parents potentially left to take care of their children at home.
The tourism sector is crying out for assistance after the worst summer season in living memory. One demand is that the government should extend state support for the labor market, set to expire Sept. 30, though that would add to the strain on already stretched public coffers.
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.