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Homeland Security

In Europe, Local Leaders Increasingly Frustrated with Pandemic Restrictions

By Jamie Dettmer October 05, 2020

In Madrid, the mayor has bowed before the law of the land, but has vowed to take Spain's central government to the courts to try to reverse new more restrictive coronavirus lockdown rules.

In Marseilles, the mayor has expressed her fury with Emmanuel Macron's government for ordering the closure of all restaurants and bars in France's second largest city, saying nothing justifies the order.

In a string of northern English towns the anger is echoed. There, mayors are also questioning the orthodoxy of lockdowns, arguing that infection rates are trending up even in locked-down towns.

They are not going as far as to ignore government instructions, although last week, Andy Preston, mayor of Middlesbrough, a struggling post-industrial town in Yorkshire, came close, suggesting at one point he might defy the order.

Preston has bemoaned the central government's decision to ban households mixing in pubs, restaurants and public spaces in the town of 138,000, saying new strict rules will have a detrimental effect on jobs as well as on mental health.

Preston is not alone. City and regional leaders in several European countries are becoming increasingly frustrated with the pandemic restrictions central governments are imposing from on high. Local leaders say they are better placed to know when and how to tighten restrictions, or whether they are needed at all. They fear central governments are not getting the balance right between protecting lives and saving livelihoods and businesses.


The emerging pattern of pushback coincides with an alarming rise in infection rates in Europe. National governments are warning that the surge in cases, if not contained could end up overwhelming hospitals.

The surge in cases is now being seen, too, in Italy and Germany, countries that had appeared to be bucking the trend. They were thought to have been squelching a second wave of infections being seen in neighboring countries. But on Saturday, Italy reached its highest daily tally since 24 April with authorities reporting 2,844 new infections, up from 2,499 cases the day before.

Italy is one of the few countries where regional and local authorities tend to be even keener on lockdowns than central government, often imposing restrictions ahead of direct orders from Rome.

In Campania, the regional president Vincenzo De Luca Saturday ordered all residents to wear face masks when they are outside their homes. "There is no third way. Masks must be worn on the face, not on the elbow. If the alternative is between having people dying on the street or taking a pleasant stroll, there will be no doubt … everything will close."

Campania is one of Italy's most densely populated and poorest regions and it is now registering the highest daily tally of new infections in the country. "We must return to the strict behavior of February, March and April, otherwise we get sick," he warned.

Anger building

But in other countries municipal frustration is boiling amid mounting fears of permanent economic damage. In both Britain and France, local leaders complain they are not being consulted before the announcement of new restrictions and are given no opportunity to help shape the rules.

"The Marseille town hall was not consulted," complained Michèle Rubirola, the mayor, last week after the government imposed tighter restrictions on the city. The decision to shutter restaurants and bars and left her "astonished and angry," she said.

The city's first deputy mayor, Benoît Payan, criticized the restrictions and said the government had ignored a plea for a 10-day reprieve to show that the city's own measures were working.

"Once again our territory is being sanctioned, punished, singled out," he says. "Our city has been put in virtual confinement without anyone having been consulted. Marseille deserves better than being beaten down, or of serving as an example," he added.

Many small business owners in Marseille agree with their local leaders. One restaurant owner, Laurent Catz, told Le Figaro newspaper the decision was "catastrophic" for his business." "We cannot ignore the health situation but it is almost a death sentence for the profession," he said. "We are still recovering and we are being shut down again."

Another restaurateur, Frédéric Leclair, told the newspaper: "I have trouble understanding this decision, especially since I have a beautiful terrace where I can enforce social distancing.

Lack of uniformity in determining the reasons for lockdowns is not helping Britain's ruling Conservatives to calm mounting frustration. Some city mayors and opposition parties in Britain are questioning whether bias dictates which towns and areas get locked-down.

Jonathan Ashworth, a senior Labor party politician, told the BBC: "Because there is no clear guidelines as to why an area goes into restrictions and how an area comes out of restrictions then there is a suspicion that there is political interference - I hope there isn't. But until the government publishes clear guidelines, that suspicion will always linger."

The government is being accused by some of sparing wealthy Conservative voting areas from local coronavirus lockdowns. Critics point out that Labor-voting areas with comparatively lower infection rates have been facing tougher restrictions than their more affluent neighbors.

Dominic Harrison, director of public health in the town of Blackburn, wrote to ministers last week warning that more economically challenged boroughs were " being placed into more restrictive control measures at an earlier point in their ... case rate trajectory." Other critics complain that districts represented by Cabinet ministers tend to escape local lockdown orders, despite sometimes having higher case numbers than districts ordered to shutter.

Government officials say the incidence rate is "only one of a set of considerations regarding when it is appropriate to impose and release restrictions." A Health Ministry spokesperson said in a statement: "While we recognize how much of an imposition these measures are, they are based on the latest scientific evidence in order to suppress the virus and protect us all while doing everything possible to support the economy."

But critics of the regional and local lockdowns warn the economic consequences are now becoming too hard to bear and risk leaving a permanent scar. The issue of public health versus public welfare and wealth is likely only to become more heated, say analysts, as unemployment rises and a rising number of businesses close permanently.

Pragmatism, individualism

Municipal and regional critics of central government-dictated lockdowns appear to be catching the public mood in some countries. "National solidarity and unthinking compliance is evolving into a more pragmatic, individualist mood," according to commentator Janice Turner. "Every time the rules change, they lose a little more faith," she says. The rules are becoming white noise and as they do so "more people will resort to what they think is right," she adds.

A "Zero Covid" strategy won't work long-term, critics warn. Government officials across Europe counter they are only following the science. But this is now being questioned by some scientists themselves, who say the trade-offs are not something they should decide.

"Both the virus and the ways of tackling it cause harm and need to be balanced: for example, how much should young people's education be compromised to protect older people from infection? This is a 'wicked problem' with no winners in which we are trying to trade jobs, freedoms and health against each other," says Graham Medley, professor of infectious disease modeling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Writing in The Times newspaper he said: "While scientists can ensure that any strategies are underpinned by the best evidence and research, they should have no greater say in them than economists, ethicists, historians and the wider public. The question of whether New Zealand's approach is 'better' than Sweden's is as much a social as a scientific one," he added.

New Zealand and Sweden have pursued dramatically different pandemic strategies. Sweden has taken a much softer more hands-off approach, while New Zealand put in place lockdown measures earlier this year even before their first case was recorded.

In Madrid, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the president of greater Madrid's regional government, has warned that more restrictions will be "the ruin of Madrid and the ruin of Spain." The Spanish economy contracted by 18.5% in the second quarter of this year. What she has dubbed "arbitrary rules" will result in "queues of hungry people again and unemployment figures that will multiply tenfold."

On the streets of Middlesbrough last week, the town mayor's frustration with the new more restrictive rules appeared to resonate with many locals saying they fear that combating the virus is elbowing out the equally important goal of saving livelihoods. Paula Hoare, 27, told reporters, "The mayor is sticking up for the town where there is already massive poverty."

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