Spain’s Health Minister: Catalonia’s handling of the pandemic sets an example for Madrid

PP, Vox ask Illa to resign in parliamentary debate on exceptional measures

On Thursday there was a feeling of déjà-vu hanging in the Spanish parliament that was reminiscent of the fortnightly debates held last spring when lawmakers discussed the application of the state of emergency. Spain’s coalition government faced off with the conservative opposition over the decision to invoke constitutional powers to declare the state of emergency. This week’s debate —which was merely informative, as the Spanish government has no intention to extend the exceptional measures— triggered a fresh spat over the handling of the pandemic. Rather than PM Pedro Sánchez, this time it was Health Minister Salvador Illa himself who argued in favour of declaring the state of emergency [in the Madrid region]. Illa had led the talks with the regional government —headed by Madrid president Isabel Díaz Ayuso— which quickly turned into an all-out war between the two administrations.

Illa applauded Catalonia’s decision to close down bars and restaurants [temporarily] and drew a comparison between the situation in Madrid and the handling of the pandemic by the Catalan authorities and the government of Asturias —a region that has reverted to phase 2 even though it has only recorded 175 new cases [per 100k people]. In his first address in parliament, minister Illa stated that “the regional governments are being determined and resolute, putting in a stitch in time to save nine, and I want to take this opportunity to thank them”. Catalonia’s ERC, CUP and Junts per Catalunya MPs chose not to intervene because the debate was solely focused on a regional matter concerning Madrid.

State of emergency: the very last resort

The Partido Popular opposition called on the Spanish government to put an end to the state of emergency [in the Madrid region] and lift mobility restrictions now that the spike has dropped to under 500 new cases per 100,000 people in the last fourteen days, as established by the public health authorities. Illa replied that the state of emergency is the government’s “very last resort” and he warned that the pandemic is experiencing a resurgence [in Spain] which “must be taken very seriously, as we don’t know what will happen in three, four or five weeks’ time”.

Minister Illa urged the regional authorities in Madrid “not to normalise the recorded figures” because such a spike “ought to be the exception rather than the norm”. Illa replied to the PP, Vox and Ciudadanos by pointing out that “we are in an unstable scenario where things could take a turn for the worse tomorrow” and he encouraged the opposition parties to be “very humble”. In fact, the minister halved the 200 new case target figure to just 100 in order to keep the drastic restrictions in place.

Illa pointed out that when the Spain-wide state of emergency was lifted [before the summer] the average number of confirmed new cases across Spain was only 8.51 per 100,000 people. Today that number is 265, twice as many in Madrid, Navarre and Melilla [Spain’s African exclave]. Furthermore, Spain’s average is four times higher than the figure advised by Europe, which establishes that anything over 60 —or a rate of PCR-positive testing greater than 3 per cent— must be a reason for concern.

Four warning levels

Spain’s SER radio network, which had access to a draft copy, reports that Spain’s health ministry is readying a new order that will outline the bare minimum restrictions that all regional governments will be expected to bring in depending on those parameters. A total of four levels are described. The most extreme would be set when 250 new cases are recorded per 100,000 people. This would force the regional government of Madrid to keep the restrictions in place (or even tighten them) once the state of emergency is lifted on 23 October.

Vox, PP: Illa must resign

The PP spokesperson in the Spanish lower chamber, Cuca Gamarra, slammed PM Sánchez for refusing to appear in parliament for question time and, instead, using his minister as “a human shield, like Dr Fernando Simón” [the top scientist in Spain’s covid task force]. “The decision to impose the state of emergency was arbitrary, authoritarian and abusive”, she added. Gamarra also complained that “Madrid’s blanket lockdown” was imposed “based on fabricated data” and, like far-right party Vox, she urged Illa to resign. Vox MP José Luis Steegman told Illa to “resign, go back to Barcelona [where Illa comes from] and do not feel tempted to turn into a dictator” and he said it was “ironic” that Illa’s first name should be “Salvador” [“saviour” in Catalan]. In contrast, Ciudadanos did not ask the minister to step down, unlike their representatives in the Madrid region, and instead insisted that dialogue is the way to resolve the situation.