Bitterness over the UK’s sovereignty of Gibraltar runs deep, and Madrid has never renounced its claim over the British overseas territory. However, Spain’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Arancha Gonzalez Laya, called Mr Picardo on Wednesday in rare demonstration of solidarity as both sides began to implement contingency measures to battle the spread of the disease, with more than 200,000 cases worldwide. Speaking for the first time since Mrs Gonzalez came into office, she and Mr Picardo agreed a mutual response would benefit both sides.
She later tweeted about the conversation, saying Spain and Gibraltar were “working together to protect our citizens”.
The complexities of the situation were highlighted after a backdrop to the call was an incident on Tuesday night in which an easyJet flight which had Gibraltarian students on board was forced to land in Malaga because of high winds in Gibraltar.
All passengers were stranded on board because the airline had been unable to organise coaches as a result of COVID-19 restrictions in Spain, which is the second-worst hit country in Europe after Italy.
EasyJet has stopped flights to Spain and dramatically scaled back its operations, meaning the Spanish authorities were unable to allow the Gibraltar-bound passengers to disembark because they had no way to continue their journeys.
The state of emergency rules announced by Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez – whose own wife has contracted the illness – meant the authorities were unable the passengers either to wait at the airport or travel to Gibraltar independently.
Mr Picardo subsequently spoke with officials at the Spanish Ministry for Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of the Interior, as well as the plane’s captain, as the plane prepared to take off from Malaga for its return flight to Bristol.
Mr Picardo told the press conference: “We had the opportunity of reflecting on the actions being taken to slow down the spread of the coronavirus in Europe, and I used the call also to thank the minister for the work done by her officials and officials of the Ministry of the Interior last night in relation to the easyJet flight in question.
“The minister has been very clear to me that she is looking to work to ensure that we continue to have the fluidity of persons and goods necessary that we need to have and she’s been positive and supportive throughout in her communication.
“I thanked her also for reaching out to me at this difficult and sensitive time.
“We’ve been clear together that enemy here is the virus which knows no borders and which we’re going to approach in that way.”
Speaking earlier this week, Gibraltarians interviewed in Main Street admitted their deep concerns about the ongoing situation.
Ahjid Assomull, manager of Carlos Electrics, said: “Well basically the business has been seriously affected because we rely a lot on tourism, and the tourism is gone.
“We rely on cruise liners, and cruise liners are gone, and people generally are a bit scared to come out, and to have any contact with anyone.”
Patrick Mifsud, a retired television producer, added: “It’s affecting our communities especially here in Gibraltar.
“We have a not-very-friendly neighbour next door, so between Brexit and the coronavirus, and the fact that we are basically between the devil and the deep blue sea, things are difficult.
“If you look along Main Street now, it’s empty, businesses are suffering, not so much big businesses as small businesses, which are suffering the most.”