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Uncertainty in Madrid as court nixes partial virus lockdown


MADRID — A court in Madrid on Thursday struck down a national government order that imposed a partial lockdown in the Spanish capital and its suburbs, siding with regional officials who had resisted stricter measures against one of Europe’s most worrying virus clusters.

The judges said that travel restrictions in and out of the cities and other limitations might be necessary to fight the spread of the virus, but that under the current legal form they were violating residents' “fundamental rights.”

Thursday’s decision means that police won’t be able to fine people for leaving their municipalities without a justification. It also leaves 4.8 million residents in Madrid and nine suburban towns wondering whether they can travel to other parts of Spain over a long weekend extended by Monday’s national day celebration.

Other restrictions not affected by the ruling include a six-person cap on gatherings and limits to restaurant, bar and shop capacity and opening hours.

Madrid has been at the centre of a political impasse between Spain's national and regional authorities that has irked many people, who see more partisan strategy taking place than real action against the pandemic. The two sides were meeting later Thursday.

The region has a 14-day infection rate of 591 coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents, more than twice Spain’s national average of 257 and five times the European average rate of 113 for the week ending Sept. 27.

Speaking at a parliamentary commission, Health Minister Salvador Illa pledged to “take the judicial decisions that better protect health.”

Madrid's high population density and the fact that it attracts workers from many surrounding areas, Illa said, “make necessary to maintain a reinforced co-operation.”

The regional chief, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, has argued that milder measures are already flattening the region’s sharp infection curve and that the partial lockdown is decimating Madrid’s economy.

Spain controlled the first wave of the pandemic with a strict lockdown under a national state of emergency, but the Socialist-led government of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez lost parliamentary support to extend the special measures at the end of June. That meant giving most powers to respond to pandemic to the country’s 19 regional governments.

Without a state of emergency, the response to outbreaks over the summer has varied region by region, and courts in different parts of the country have responded in different ways to similar restrictions.

Popular Party chief Pablo Casado, the leader of Spain’s conservative opposition that leads a centre-right coalition governing Madrid, offered to talk with the government about changing the law.

“Spain has no legal framework with a midway point between a state of emergency and arbitrary decisions not based on the law that then need to be approved by a court,” he said.

Casado also called for the health minister to step down for promoting measures that he claimed politically targeted the Madrid region.

Spain has the most confirmed coronavirus cases in the 27-nation European Union, at over 825,000, and has Europe's third-highest confirmed virus death toll of over 32,500 after Britain and Italy. Experts say numbers in all countries understate the true toll of the virus due to limited testing, missed cases, government concealment and other factors.


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Aritz Parra, The Associated Press

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