Spain's efforts to curb soaring infections in Madrid were thrown into chaos Thursday after a court overturned a 14-day partial lockdown imposed at the weekend in and around the capital.
The bombshell ruling by Madrid's top regional court means the mobility restrictions imposed on some 4.5 million people cannot be legally enforced by police -- effectively rendering them null and void.
Health Minister Salvador Illa immediately called for emergency talks with the region's health chiefs in a bid to salvage the situation.
Madrid's right-wing regional administration had strongly opposed the central government's order on economic grounds and said it was vindicated by Thursday's ruling.
But it nonetheless urged residents to stay within the city limits, especially over the upcoming three-day weekend for Spain's National Day on October 12.
The court had been expected to ratify the measures imposed late Friday on Madrid and nine nearby towns, barring residents from leaving the city limits except for work, school or medical grounds.
But instead, it rejected them "on grounds they impacted on the rights and fundamental freedoms" of residents, and that health matters were the responsibility of regional governments.
When the pandemic erupted in March, the Spanish government declared a state of emergency which gave it the power to impose and enforce a lockdown across the entire country.
But since that ended on June 21, it is the regions that have had responsibility for managing the pandemic.
Madrid's infection rate has soared to nearly 600 cases per 100,000 people, compared with just 257 in the rest of Spain, already the highest in the European Union.
The ruling heaps pressure on the central government, which already faced a strong pushback over the economic impact of restrictions.
"We are going to analyse the ruling, and today or tomorrow the Covid working group will meet... and we will look at exactly what we can do," Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez told reporters at a press conference in Algiers.
The government had approved a deal with most regional authorities to impose restrictions when virus infections hit certain levels.
But the judges found this was "unconstitutional, because it has no legal authorisation," Federico de Montalvo, an expert in constitutional law, told RTV television.