A localised outbreak of Covid-19 in Spain is reigniting tensions around Catalan independence amid a political squabble over what powers the regional government has to deal with the health emergency.
As cases soared in the city of Lleida and surrounding areas, the Catalan government placed around 160,000 people under a strict lockdown earlier this month, but a judge overturned that order late on Sunday night.
Catalan leader Quim Torra claimed his region was being discriminated against and urged people to observe the restrictions even though they lacked legal force.
“If some court wants to prevent us from protecting our citizens’ health, we wish to enjoy people’s collaboration,” Mr Torra, Catalonia’s pro-independence president, said on Monday.
“We don’t accept the decision”, Mr Torra said, pointing to the fact that judicial bodies had in recent days backed controversial decisions by two other Spanish regions which barred people who had tested positive for Covid-19 from taking part in local elections on Sunday.
“Is there some special circumstance that affects us, our capacities and powers?” Mr Torra asked.
In considering the order by Mr Torra’s administration to confine people in Lleida to their homes except for travelling to work or to buy essential supplies, the judge said that only Spain’s central government could exercise such strict lockdown powers with the backing of parliament.
After the national state of emergency ended last month, Spain’s government placed the handling of the coronavirus outbreak in the hands of the country's 17 regional administrations.
For now, it says the regions have sufficient powers to deal with Covid-19, although the limits of those powers are unclear. Freedom of movement is a constitutional right, making it a particularly sticky area for a regional government to handle alone.
Mr Torra said the Catalan government would issue a new decree to impose the lockdown in Lleida but it is not clear if or how that would differ from the original order.
According to the health ministry’s official figures, Spain has registered just under 254,000 confirmed cases of the virus, causing close to 28,500 deaths, although the real figure is believed to be far higher as many people died without being diagnosed.
The outbreak in Lleida and another spike in neighbouring Aragon have been linked to the movement of migrant workers in the area for the fruit-picking season, amid criticism that many companies fail to provide their workers with decent on-site accommodation.
Meanwhile, there was confusion and frustration among business owners in Lleida on Monday owing to the uncertainty over the lockdown situation.
“Here I am, and if they want me to close, they will have to come to the brasserie to explain very clearly what it is I can and cannot do,” Oscar, a bar owner, told the newspaper La Vanguardia.