The woman at the heart of the dispute over one of Europe’s coronavirus hotspots says Spain’s government is exacerbating the crisis and depicts herself as a bulwark against socialist revolutionaries in its ranks.
To her supporters, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, head of Madrid’s regional government and perhaps the second most powerful elected official in the country, is the voice of resistance against a dangerous leftwing government running roughshod over democratic institutions and devastating the motor of the Spanish economy.
To her detractors, the leader of the region of 6.6m people is a rightwing ideologue who has been far too slow in responding to some of the highest infection rates in Europe.
Ms Díaz Ayuso, a 41-year-old who took office last year after a career largely spent in communications for her centre-right People’s party, portrays the regional administration as one of the most important checks on what she says is an “authoritarian” central government.
In an interview with the Financial Times, she accused Socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez and his coalition allies in the radical left Podemos grouping of shattering “the consensus of the two Spains [of left and right]” and trying to transform the country into a place where only “one form of thinking is allowed”.
The clash comes just three weeks after Mr Sánchez and Ms Díaz Ayuso held a summit-style meeting and promised to work with each other. It highlights how polarised politics have overwhelmed public health messaging; the different weights that Spain’s left and right give to resuming economic activity; and how the country’s complicated decentralised system of government has struggled to contend with the crisis.
“It is more of a political problem, not a health one, because Madrid was doing things well,” Ms Diaz Ayuso said of the tensions over coronavirus curbs in her region, half of whose inhabitants live in the capital city.
“Just when we had applied sensible and fair measures that were showing results, the Spanish government rapidly decided to change its discourse and impose a very different model of lockdown that is very bad for the economy, does not solve the problem and has been rejected by the courts.”
Mr Sánchez’s government contends that it had no alternative but to use emergency powers to impose a ban on people entering and leaving the capital city and nine nearby municipalities — because of what it depicts as the inadequacies of Ms Díaz Ayuso’s measures in a region that for weeks was the most infected in Europe.
While the infection rate has fallen significantly in Madrid since the end of last month, it remains twice the average in Spain, itself one of the worst affected countries in Europe.
Mr Sánchez’s officials add that they had to act quickly after a court had struck down its previous controls just ahead of a holiday weekend.
“The business of a vital region like Madrid, with 6.6m citizens, which is also the economic motor of the country, can’t be decided in 12 hours under pressure,” countered Ms Díaz Ayuso. “We needed time to take such a serious decision. We had asked the government for more time to talk about the measures we were applying in Madrid, which were correct and working well.”
Those measures, no longer in force, applied to around 1m of the region’s inhabitants, who account for roughly a quarter of its cases, rather than to the entire city.
Ms Díaz Ayuso says the success of her neighbourhood-level restrictions can be seen in the recent fall in infections — down to around 540 per 100,000 of population over the past two weeks compared with more than 780 at the end of September. Others link the decline in infections to moves by the region to stop carrying out diagnostic tests on close contacts of infected people.
The Madrid chief also makes clear her deep opposition — on largely economic grounds — to broad-brush restrictions, signalling her reluctance even to reinstate her own neighbourhood curbs on top of Mr Sánchez’s perimeter controls.
“I don’t want to impose measures while there are alternative options,” she said. “So we have to look for intermediate solutions: protect the vulnerable, locate the infectious . . . but for everyone else to go out, subject to controls.” Her staff says that each week that the central government emergency restrictions are in force will cost the region 18,000 jobs and €750m.
In May, her administration took the national government to court to get out of the lockdown faster. In July and August, after the end of the first period of emergency rule, Madrid, like other regions, tried to repair much of the economic damage and return to normal life as much as possible. But by September 1 the region had by far the worst infection rates in Spain.
Ms Díaz Ayuso’s critics allege that in the hurry to restart the economy, Madrid failed to take proper health precautions. Her administration took months to fulfil a promise it made in May to hire hundreds of staff to carry out track and trace — something she blames on the demanding qualifications for the posts. In mid-September she announced plans to deploy 1m rapid antigen tests — which identify proteins that make up the virus — but as of Sunday her administration had only carried out 83,000 such tests.
Ms Díaz Ayuso argues that the bigger picture is that Madrid has been confronting a second wave now engulfing many other cities on the continent. She faults Mr Sánchez’s government for failing to follow through with plans to introduce new legislation to enable a more coherent national response in Spain’s patchwork of 17 regions, and allow restrictions to be imposed without needing emergency powers.
But she also acknowledged that the strife between her administration and the national government “is not, of course, the best message” and added that her team wanted to sit down again with Mr Sánchez this week: “I am aware that the figures are not good, that we cannot relax, that this is not over.”