Spain has followed Italy’s lead in imposing a shutdown on its entire population to fight the coronavirus, while France is closing all non-essential shops and restaurants, as Europe contends with the world’s fastest surge in the spread of the disease.
Under Spain’s emergency measures, announced on Saturday night by Pedro Sánchez, prime minister, the country’s 46m citizens will generally not be allowed to leave their homes other than to buy food, pharmaceuticals or other necessary products unless they have a compelling reason such as caring for the ill or travelling to work.
“The measures are drastic and sadly they are going to have consequences,” said Mr Sánchez as he outlined the central government’s extensive new powers, including the ability to requisition goods, take control of factories and override Spain’s decentralised form of administration.
He spoke as Italy reported a substantial rise in cases and Washington extended a ban on travel between the US and European countries to include the UK and Ireland. Late on Saturday, Spain’s government said that Mr Sánchez’s own wife, Begoña Gómez, had tested positive for the virus.
Meanwhile, the French government ordered the closure of all sites open to the public that were “not indispensable to the life of the nation”. These include all establishments apart from food shops, pharmacies, banks and petrol stations. While Paris has asked its citizens to avoid all long-distance travel it has not, so far, instructed them to stay at home except for reasons of essential work or medical treatment, as in Italy. But Edouard Philippe, prime minister, told companies to introduce as much teleworking as possible to slow the spread of the virus.
The World Health Organisation now considers Europe the “epicentre” of the crisis, highlighting the extraordinary challenge facing the continent in terms of public health, economic impact and social disruption.
The number of cases in Spain has roughly doubled over the past 48 hours, meaning that it is now experiencing the world’s fastest rate of growth among countries with at least 100 confirmed cases.
Mr Sánchez’s move, a decree issued under a so-called state of alert, to confine most of the population to their homes follows a similar lockdown in Italy, at present the only country in the world with a higher number of new daily cases.
While most commercial establishments in Spain other than food stores and chemists are now obliged to close, those still in work will still be permitted to travel to their place of employment, even if it is in another city, to walk their dogs and to go to the hairdresser, among other services. But social gatherings are banned, as are excursions outside the home without a permitted purpose. Much of public transport will be reduced to less than half of its normal service.
Mr Sanchez’s announcement was repeatedly postponed as his cabinet held a seven hour debate — which the prime minister described as “intense” — on the measure.
Under the decree, the national ministries of defence, interior, health and transport will temporarily gain sweeping new powers, overriding regional administrations.
The state of alert will apply for an initial period of fifteen days but Spain’s opposition has already said it would support its extension, although Pablo Casado, leader of the centre-right People’s party, criticised the government for taking too long to act.
Mr Sánchez said that the government would guarantee the country’s supply of food and energy and would do everything it could to soften the blow on workers. His administration also wants financial services, manufacturing and other sectors to continue operating to prevent a complete economic halt. But he warned: “It is obligatory to comply with the ban on being on the streets.”
He said the victory over the virus would only begin when the total of people who had recovered outstripped that of those who had been infected by it. But he added: “The larger victory will come when there is a big fall in those who have recently become sick. That will be when our economy will strongly recover.”
In Madrid, the worst affected region in the country, the number of cases has risen to 2,940, with 133 deaths. Overall, there have been more than 5,800 cases in the country.
Within Europe, only Italy has a greater overall number of cases: on Saturday it reported a total of 21,157, a 20 per cent rise on the previous day’s tally. The total number of active cases in Italy, excluding the dead and recovered, stands at 17,750.
Additional reporting by John Burn-Murdoch and Miles Johnson