The move came as the number of cases of coronavirus spiralled to over 4,200 by Friday lunchtime and with at least 120 deaths.
The decision was announced at 3.30 pm after an emergency cabinet meeting and came just 24 hours after Sanchez had ruled out such a move.
But it will not come into force until tomorrow, Sanchez said.
“There will be a cabinet meeting tomorrow to declare a state of alert across the country for a period of 15 days,” Sanchez said.
“Unfortunately we cannot rule out that over the next week we could reach more than 10,000 infections,” he said.
The government would adopt a series of extraordinary measures in order “to mobilise all the resources of the state to better protect the health of all of its citizens”, he said pointing to both public and private resources, as well as civilian and military.
“Several very tough weeks.. are ahead of us,” Sanchez added, saying Spain was “only in the first phase of the fight against the virus”.
“Victory depends on every single one of us. Heroism is also about washing your hands and staying at home,” he said.
So what is a “state of alert”
This is an exceptional decree that is covered in article 116 of Spain’s constitution and is the first of three measures that include “state of emergency” and “state of siege”, which are in place in case the government needs to introduce extraordinary measures to protect the country.
Why not a state of emergency?
The difference between the “state of alert” or “state of alarm” as it is also translated is, and the other two “emergency states” is that it can order exceptional measures but cannot affect fundamental rights such as freedom of speech or right to demonstrate.
The other two are really designed for use when dealing with “coup d’etat” or war situation.
What does it mean?
The measure allows the government to use extraordinary steps to protect citizens and respond to a social and emergency situation.
It means that the state can mobilize resources quickly for the good of the country.
These include accessing funds, taking health measures and even mobilizing the army to respond to the emergency.
It also means that they impose travel restrictions, limit supplies by introducing rationing or commandeer supply chains to ensure essentials reach those that need them.
It will also mean that the state can requisition supplies and can occupy essential premises, such as factories, warehouses or any commercial premises.
It could also impose rationing or introduce measures to guarantee the supply of essentials.
Has it been invoked before?
This is only the second time since Spain’s transition to democracy after the death of Franco in 1975 that a state of alert has been called. The only other time was in 2010 when the army was called into man the air traffic control systems after the air traffic controllers went out on strike.
What’s the difference between normal life and in a state of alert?
Until now all measures recommended by authorities to deal with the coronavirus have been exactly that; recommendations. But under a state of alert, they become ‘orders’.
Under the terms of a state of alert, people won’t be asked to avoid non-essential travel but could be banned from moving around Spain freely without a permit.
What measures will be imposed?
While Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez announced that the decision had been taken to invoke a “state of alert”, he has yet to outline what that will involve.
On Saturday there will be an emergency cabinet meeting and meeting with all the regional leaders to decide the next steps.
How long will it last?
The “state of alert” can last a maximum of 15 days and can only be extended with the permission of Congress.
Published The Local 14 March 2020