MADRID (Reuters) – Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez exhorted Spaniards on Friday to further limit social contact to combat Europe’s worst COVID-19 hotspot, but he stopped short of announcing new measures amid political disputes over potential curfews.
Quarrelling between the Socialist-led government and mostly conservative regions – and also among regions themselves – has hampered the response to the pandemic for months, exasperating citizens and fostering uncertainty.
With total cases soaring this week to over a million, the health minister said the pandemic was out of control and recommended curfews, which several European countries with fewer COVID-19 cases have already implemented in the past days.
But the government lacks a majority in parliament to push bold steps and override sometimes reluctant regions who decide on health matters and fear further economic damage as Spain already enters its worst recession since the civil war.
Paco, 50, a public servant waiting for a bus in central Madrid, said Spanish politicians needed to act faster. “They should have passed it (a curfew) before. They’re reacting very late,” he said.
Sanchez said it was up to the 17 regions to decide on next steps, while citizens should observe limits of their own
“What we have to do is reduce movement and social contact. There is no other solution,” he said in a televised address to the nation. “If we don’t follow precautions, we are putting the lives of those we love most at risk.”
Many in Spain expected curfews to come into force eventually, prompting Nochevieja, or New Year’s Eve, to become a trending topic on Twitter as several users imagined celebrating it via video calls.
The leader of the northwestern Castilla and Leon region, who wants a curfew in his territory, voiced exasperation at the delays.
“The virus doesn’t understand administrative boundaries or different political stripes,” Alfonso Fernandez Manueco told a news conference.
Most regions favour some form of curfew but the powerful Madrid region opposes it, which has prevented a nationwide decision.
The leader of the northerly Basque Country, Inigo Urkullu, called on Friday for a state of emergency, which would give regions legal backing to act to limit people’s movement.
The votes of his Basque Nationalist Party and those of other regional leaders making similar calls would most likely give the government enough votes to pass the measure.
In Madrid, where a two-week lockdown expires on Saturday, the regional government plans to move to imposing more localised confinement in some neighbourhoods. Socialising between different households will be banned across the city between midnight and 6 am.
While the total number of confirmed cases in Spain stood at 1,026,281, Sanchez said that since not all cases are detected, the actual tally was likely to be over 3 million.
(Reporting by Emma Pinedo, Belen Carreno, Nathan Allen; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Frances Kerry/Andrew Cawthorne/Pravin Char)