Spain wrestles with new Covid surge amid legal spat

Court said government should not have used state of emergency during lockdown

Spain’s Queen Letizia and King Felipe VI  at the Royal Palace in Madrid during the second official ceremony to pay tribute to the victims of  coronavirus. Photograph:  Epa/Ballesteros /Pool

Spain’s Queen Letizia and King Felipe VI at the Royal Palace in Madrid during the second official ceremony to pay tribute to the victims of coronavirus. Photograph: Epa/Ballesteros /Pool

 

Two months after Spain lifted a series of nationwide restrictions, the country is struggling with a new wave of Covid-19 amid a row over the legal mechanisms employed to manage the pandemic.

On May 9th, the government of Socialist Pedro Sánchez lifted a curfew and a ban on non-essential travel between regions as the virus’s spread appeared to be stabilising.

However, since Spaniards returned to relative normality, infection rates have started to surge again. Over the last three weeks, the number of infections per 100,000 people over 14 days has jumped from fewer than 100 to more than 500.

“We have an explosive increase in cases, with very high R numbers,” said Clara Prats, a Covid-19 specialist at the Biocomsc research group, of the indicator measuring the virus’s growth rate. “This is something we didn’t see in the previous waves, when it was unusual to reach R rates of 1.5.”

The north and east of the country is most affected by the current wave, with the Aragón region registering an R rate of 2.1 and Catalonia having more than 1,000 cases per 100,000 people.

This is Spain’s fifth wave of the virus and the growing presence of the Delta variant differentiates it from the four previous ones. In addition, this wave is characterised by contagion among young people, with the infection rate for Spaniards in their 20s about three times higher than the average.

Several regional governments have responded by reintroducing restrictions. Catalonia, Aragón, the Balearic Islands and Valencia are among the regions that have announced partial new measures that mainly affect nightlife.

Meanwhile, the central government is reeling from a ruling this week by the constitutional court which deemed the use of a national state of emergency during a strict lockdown in spring of 2020 illegal. The tribunal found that the leftist coalition government had overstepped the bounds of the state of emergency in some areas and should have used a more drastic legal mechanism instead.

The ruling, which was in response to an appeal by the far-right Vox party, means that over one million fines which were handed out for violating the lockdown are annulled. More importantly, it suggests that in similar circumstances in the future, any government would have to invoke a state of exception.

“The government did what it needed to do and it acted according to the law,” said defence minister Margarita Robles, in response to the ruling. She also seemed to suggest that the tribunal had been politically influenced – a charge frequently levelled at Spain’s judiciary – accusing it of “dogmatic musings”.

Teodoro García Egea, of the main opposition Popular Party (PP), which gave parliamentary support to the use of the state of emergency, said the court’s decision showed that the government’s response to the pandemic had been “a complete failure”.