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Madrid, Marseille and Middlesbrough Highlight New Virus Problem

Madrid, Marseille and Middlesbrough Highlight New Virus Problem

Wednesday, 7 October, 2020 - 08:00

Since the resurgence of the pandemic, Europe has tried to avoid imposing new national lockdowns. Countries have preferred localized restrictions as a less costly alternative. While such “smart” lockdowns seem like a good idea in theory, they’re bound to stir resentment among the regions, cities and neighborhoods that must suffer them. If targeted measures are to work, politicians will have to win consensus.

The most egregious example is Spain, where the government has clashed with local politicians in the Madrid area as the national authorities demanded that people avoid all non-essential movement to halt a rise in infections. The central government also asked to limit any meeting to no more than six people and forced bars and restaurants to stop serving after 10pm. The region ultimately caved to the requests, but its leaders have vowed to fight the restrictions in court.

These clashes are emerging across the rest of Europe, too. In France, politicians in Marseille rebelled against the decision by the central government to tighten measures in the area after a surge in cases. At the end of September Emmanuel Macron’s administration demanded that the city’s bars and restaurants shut for at least two weeks. Restaurants have since been allowed to reopen, but local officials are still unhappy that other regions — such as Paris — haven’t had the same restrictions. Michele Rubirola, the local mayor, tweeted: “I celebrate the reopening from today of restaurants in Marseille. But it is regrettable this decision was taken not to shut them down elsewhere.”

The UK has also chosen to impose stricter rules in some areas. It’s now illegal for different households to mix in northern areas of England, such as Hartlepool, Middlesbrough, Warrington and the Liverpool area. The mayor of Middlesbrough initially “vowed to defy” the rules though later said he would comply.

There were fewer local-national skirmishes during Covid’s first wave, when most governments locked down their entire nations. Those disagreements that occurred often went in the opposite direction: Nicola Sturgeon, first minister of Scotland, and Sadiq Khan, mayor of London, both criticized Boris Johnson’s government for being too soft in its virus approach. In March, Spain’s central government challenged in court Catalonia’s decision to enforce more draconian restrictions than those set nationally.

But politicians now fear for the impact national lockdowns have on the economy and people’s morale. They see tightening up the rules in specific regions when cases spike above a certain threshold as a more accurate and effective approach.

The trouble is, defining which areas should see greater restrictions can be contentious. In Spain, for instance, local officials in Madrid initially only restricted movements and gatherings in a number of neighborhoods on the outskirts of the capital city, where the virus seemed to be harder to control. The central government then asked them to apply the same restrictions to the rest of the city, since the region’s infection rate as a whole was out of line with the rest of the country — prompting a revolt from the local authorities.

Disagreements over lockdowns can also turn into bitter fights when there are differences in political color. Spain’s left-wing central government clashed first with the pro-independence administration in Catalonia and then with the right-wing rulers of the Madrid region. In the UK, both the Labor administration in London and the Scottish nationalist government were the strongest critics of Johnson’s handling of the health crisis. The risk is huge of political bias influencing decisions that should be based on science alone.

As the second wave washes over Europe, we might well still see new national lockdowns. If deaths surge and hospitals are overwhelmed, politicians will have no option but to close down everything. If the situation remains relatively under control, however, localized measures still appear a more realistic alternative.

So local and national officials will have to work together and get buy-in from affected regions. National governments must set out clear rules for raising the level of restrictions in a particular area and be prepared to extend more economic support to those facing tougher rules. Meanwhile, local politicians must understand when a lockdown is needed — and they shouldn't complain about lighter restrictions in regions with lower case counts. In times of crisis, a stalemate between the center and the periphery helps no one.


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