Government instructs people to stay at home for two weeks, and closes bars, restaurants, cafes and cinemas
The Spanish government has formally declared a state of emergency over the coronavirus, placing the country in lockdown and ordering people to stay at home for the next two weeks unless they have to buy food or medicine or go to work or hospital.
Speaking after a seven-hour cabinet meeting on Saturday evening, the prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, said “extraordinary decisions” needed to be taken as Spain grappled with a “health, social and economic crisis”.
Spain is the country most affected by the coronavirus in Europe after Italy, and has so far confirmed 6,251 cases and 193 deaths. Italy has already taken similar measures.
Sánchez said the central government would direct the response and that all the local, national and regional police forces would come under the command of the interior ministry. He also said that the army was standing by and ready to help with the emergency response.
The prime minister confirmed that people would be required to stay home and that all non-essential shops would close, along with bars, restaurants, cafes and cinemas.
Supermarkets, small food shops, pharmacies, petrols stations and pet supply shops are among those businesses that will remain open.
He said: “During the state of emergency, people will only be allowed out on to public streets for the following reasons: to buy food, basic or pharmaceutical items; to attend medical centres; to go to and from work; to look after children, older people or those with disabilities or who are especially vulnerable; and to attend financial or insurance offices on force majeure grounds.”
Sánchez acknowledged that the measures needed to tackle the coronavirus would have a “big economic impact” but said the government was committed to mitigating its effects.
The emergency powers, set out in article 116 of the constitution, have not been used since 2010, when the article was enacted in response to an air traffic controllers’ strike.
The state of emergency will initially apply for a fortnight, but can be extended with parliamentary approval.
Opponents have criticised Sánchez’s socialist-led coalition government for its delay in rolling out robust measures to fight the virus and for allowing huge rallies across the country last Sunday to mark International Women’s Day.
As news of the decree leaked out on Saturday afternoon, the regional governments of Catalonia and the Basque country claimed the central government’s use of the drastic powers could undermine their autonomy, while the Andalucían premier accused Sánchez and his partners in the far-left, anti-austerity Unidas Podemos alliance of squabbling when they should have been tackling the crisis.
The prime minister addressed the criticisms in Saturday night’s speech, in which he pointedly called on the leaders of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions to work together for the health and safety of all Spaniards.
“Each and every one of the regional presidents needs to put aside their differences, get behind the Spanish government and focus on our only mission – which is working together to beat the virus,” he said.
Schools and universities are already shut across Spain, and the measures contained in the emergency decree come after the regional governments of Madrid, Murcia, Galicia, Cantabria and Asturias had already ordered the closure of all non-essential shops.
Bars, cafes, restaurants and cinemas in and around the capital closed on Saturday morning, while Madrid’s city council announced that all public parks and gardens would close from Saturday afternoon to prevent large concentrations of people.
Meanwhile, the Andalucían cities of Seville, Granada and Córdoba abandoned their famous Holy Week celebrations after consultation with religious authorities.
The cancellation of the spectacular but sombre Holy Week parades, which draw huge crowds of foreign visitors, comes as tourist bookings plummet.
Jet2, which flies from nine UK airports to destinations including Alicante, Málaga and Lanzarote, said it was cancelling all flights to mainland Spain, the Balearic Islands and the Canary Islands.