Spain’s Pedro Sánchez adopts more hands-off approach to second coronavirus wave

The Spanish prime minister is pushing for a six-month state of alarm to fight coronavirus, but unlike during the first wave, he wants regional leaders to make the hard choices.

The number of new confirmed daily cases in Spain has shot up from around 8,000 at the beginning of September to over 18,000 and health experts warn that the targeted restrictions taken in recent weeks, including shutting down bars and restaurants in parts of the country and limiting gatherings, are having minimal impact.

Political tensions are rising too. There was a furious public reaction to pictures of four ministers attending a glamorous awards ceremony in Madrid on Monday just as the country re-entered the state of alarm. Many on social media saw it as evidence of a political class out of touch with ordinary people struggling under strict anti-coronavirus measures, even though the event organizers said they had followed the rules.

Speaking in parliament on Wednesday, Health Minister Salvador Illa, who was one of the attendees, acknowledged public anger. “The best way to social distance is by not going,” he said.

Ahead of what could be a very difficult winter, Sánchez appears to be taking steps to insulate himself from some of this political heat.

The prime minister wants the “state of alarm” that was reintroduced on Sunday to remain in place until May 9. This, he says, would give legal certainty to regional governments when adopting tougher measures restricting basic freedoms. But unlike during the first wave in the spring, the Spanish prime minister wants central government to take a less hands-on approach. Rather than grabbing devolved health powers, his government will instead act to coordinate the response, handing tough lockdown decisions to regional leaders.

“What we are doing is governing in partnership with the autonomous communities … by offering all the legal and material resources with the only goal of protecting public health,” Sánchez told MPs on Wednesday.

Another way Sánchez is looking to put some political distance between himself and the toxicity of lockdown measures is by delegating responsibility for updating MPs on the pandemic. Rather than attending Congress every two weeks as he did during the first wave, Illa will have that unenviable task. Sánchez’s office also ruled out his appearance in a key parliamentary debate on Thursday which is due to start at 9 a.m., saying that he must prepare for a videoconference with EU leaders in the evening.     

This has infuriated opposition parties, who say Sánchez cannot avoid the limelight and let others defend the restrictions in Congress. Pablo Casado, leader of the center-right Popular Party, demanded that the prime minister subject himself to parliamentary scrutiny.

“Less aló president during the weekends and more coming to Congress as the Constitution stipulates,” he said, in reference to Sánchez’s broadcast COVID-19 press conferences, which became a regular feature of the pandemic’s early weeks.

The socialist prime minister is confident his plan to prolong the state of alarm can receive enough support from opposition MPs at a crucial vote in Congress on Thursday. But he has been forced to make some concessions.

The Popular Party says that six months is too long for such exceptional measures to remain in place — suggesting eight weeks instead. To head off that argument, Sánchez has proposed that the state of alarm be reviewed on March 9, meaning it could be lifted if the regional leaders and the central government agree that the health situation allows it.

The prime minister also agreed to appear before Congress every two months to give evidence on the evolution of the pandemic and the government’s response — although some MPs still hope they can drag Sánchez to Congress more often.

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