Spain’s government is resisting calls from the country’s regions for greater powers to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, even as the third wave of infections hits new heights.
Nine of the country’s 17 regions have demanded changes in the law to allow them to extend curfews or impose lockdowns. But despite hopes the government would agree at a meeting this week, Salvador Illa, health minister, merely said he was “studying” their requests.
“We are not so much trying to add many more measures at once as to correctly apply those we have already adopted and wait the necessary time to evaluate the result,” he said, arguing that Spain’s current approach had managed to bring down rates in the second wave, during October and November.
After assuming command of the response to the first wave last year, the central government has stepped back so that the regions, which have primary responsibility for healthcare, take the lead in combating the pandemic.
“The government wants the regions to assume the political cost it had to bear during the first wave, when there was a widespread backlash to the tough lockdown,” said Pablo Simón, professor of politics at Madrid’s Carlos III University, who noted that there has been no second general lockdown in Spain.
But most regions now say they need more powers at a time when infections are again on the rise.
“If the government wants to give us all the responsibility for managing the pandemic it should give us all the tools,” said Jesús Aguirre, the top health official for Andalucía, calling for regions to have the right to require people to stay at home.
Verónica Casado, his equivalent for the Castile-León region, added that the more new measures were delayed, the more infections, hospital admissions and deaths there would be. “We are in a very grave situation in which we need to take decisions very fast,” she said.
According to figures published by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control on Thursday, Spain, which prime minister Pedro Sánchez boasted a month ago had some of the lowest infection rates in Europe, now has some of the highest.
The ECDC data show that, of the countries in the EU and the European Economic Area, only Ireland, the Czech Republic, Portugal and Slovenia have higher rates. According to Spain’s health ministry, over the past two weeks Spain has registered 796 cases per 100,000 of the population — three and a half times the rate of a month ago.
Fernando Simón, the doctor leading Spain’s coronavirus response, said this week that the third wave was at or near its peak. He linked the rise to people socialising during the Christmas period, after which regions tightened restrictions.
Mr Illa — whose position as health minister is complicated by his status as the Socialists’ candidate for regional elections scheduled next month in Catalonia — argues that the regions already have the tools that allow them to impose the equivalent of lockdowns.
Under emergency rules, due to remain in force until May, regions enforce a curfew between 11pm and 6am, which they can vary by an hour either way, as well as restrictions on the size of gatherings and people’s movements. They can also close restaurants, shopping centres and places of entertainment.
But several epidemiologists argue there is no sign the rise in infections is about to be reversed and that the central government should give greater powers to the regions if it is unwilling to act.
“Unless in the next few days we have an indication that the rise is beginning to be controlled, the minister won’t have any alternative but to go to parliament and ask for some of the changes the regions are requesting,” said Professor Fernando Rodríguez Artalejo, an expert in epidemiology at the Autonomous university of Madrid. “I can’t see any reason except politics not to give more powers to the regions.”
He added that the increased incidence of B.1.1.7, the more contagious coronavirus variant first detected in the UK, posed an additional risk, estimating that it now accounted for around 5 per cent of cases in Madrid hospitals, more than double the proportion of 10 days ago.
Rafael Bengoa, a former Basque region minister for health and director at the World Health Organization, said Spain’s vaccination drive — which the government says is the second most effective in the EU after Denmark — would initially do little to slow down the virus’s spread. This is because older people and care home and health workers are the priority groups for jabs, while most infections affect younger people.