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Europe's worst infection hotspot Madrid heads for lockdown

MADRID (Reuters) - Madrid will become the first European capital to go back into lockdown in coming days after the region’s leader reluctantly agreed on Thursday to obey a central government order to ban non-essential travel to and from the Spanish capital.

In order to fight a steep surge in COVID-19 cases, Madrid and nine nearby municipalities will see borders closed to outsiders for non-essential visits, with only travel for work, school, doctors’ visits or shopping allowed. A curfew for bars and restaurants moved to 11 p.m. from 1 a.m.

However, regional chief Isabel Diaz Aysuo said she will appeal against the lockdown in the courts, meaning the uncertainty and fierce political squabbling that has exasperated the residents of Madrid is far from over.

“We are victims of improvisation,” architect Jean-Pierre Moncardo complained, saying politicians had wasted time fighting each other instead of giving medics the funding they needed to fight the pandemic.

The Madrid region has 859 cases per 100,000 people, according to the World Health Organization, making it Europe’s worst COVID-19 hotspot. Spain already had one of the continent’s highest infection rates during the first wave of the pandemic.

Spain’s Socialist-led government - which puts cases in Madrid at 735 per 100,000 - decided late on Wednesday to impose a new lockdown on the city of more than 3 million people.

That infuriated the conservative-led regional government, which is worried about the impact on livelihoods in a city famous for its bars, restaurants and bustle of tourists in normal times.

FILE PHOTO: A man gets his temperature checked before a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) antigen test in the working class neighbourhood of Vallecas, which has been under partial lockdown, at a cultural centre in Madrid, Spain, September 29, 2020. REUTERS/Sergio Perez/File Photo

Madrid region chief Diaz Ayuso told the regional assembly on Thursday she had no choice but to follow the lockdown - for now.

“This region is not in rebellion and will strictly comply with all the orders,” she said. “But yes, we will go to the courts ... to stand up for the rights of the Madrilenos.”

‘DESPICABLE’ POLITICAL FIGHTING

The government dropped a plan to shut parks and playgrounds, though local authorities could do that later.

Madrid’s COVID case load is double the national rate in Spain, which has recorded 769,188 cases - the highest in Western Europe - and 31,791 deaths.

The Madrid region has until Friday evening to publish final details of the lockdown, including the start date.

Its spat with central government has infuriated many.

“Playing politics with the health of citizens is the most despicable thing I have seen in my life,” said Luisa, a saleswoman, blaming right-wing politicians for prioritising profit, outside an underground transport station in Madrid.

The new curbs will apply to any municipality in Spain of at least 100,000 inhabitants with more than 500 cases per 100,000 people in the past 14 days, and with more than 10% positive cases in PCR tests and over 35% of ICU beds occupied by COVID patients.

Although Madrid will go back into lockdown, it won’t be as harsh as during the pandemic’s first wave, when people were confined to their homes for more than six weeks from mid-March.

Countries across Europe have introduced new restrictions in their busiest cities over the past days, including limiting how many people can be in a restaurant or making face masks compulsory in more place, to counter an increase in cases.

Reporting by Inti Landauro, Belén Carreño, Jose Elías Rodríguez, Marco Trujillo, Michael Gore, Miguel Gutierrez, Nathan Allen; Additional reporting by Padraic Halpin in Dublin; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Alexandra Hudson

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