LONDON: Nawaz Sharif hugs Shahbaz Sharif before the latter leaves for the airport.—INP
LONDON: Nawaz Sharif hugs Shahbaz Sharif before the latter leaves for the airport.—INP

ISLAMABAD: After staying with his ailing brother and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif in the UK for over four months, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) president and Opposition Leader Shahbaz Sharif is returning home on Sunday (today).

In a video message recorded just before his departure from London through the PIA flight (PK-785) to Islamabad, Mr Sharif said he had made the decision to return after Pakistan government’s decision to suspend international flights for two weeks as part of its measures to prevent spread of coronavirus.

Mr Sharif is expected to arrive in Islamabad at 5.30am in the last flight operated by the PIA from London after the government’s decision to suspend international flight operations.

The ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) and the Punjab government welcomed Mr Sharif’s decision to return to the country in this hour of need, expressing the hope that the opposition leader would play his constructive role and not indulge in political point scoring.

PTI, Punjab govt welcome decision; Fawad asks PM to quarantine opposition leader for 14 days

Talking briefly to the media before boarding the plane, Mr Sharif, wearing a face mask, said there was no room for complacency (over coronavirus). The whole nation would have to unite and all the resources would have to be utilised (in the fight against the virus).

Mr Sharif evaded questions about the handling of the situation by Prime Minister Imran Khan-led government and left the place without answering.

“With the permission of Nawaz Sharif, I am returning to the country,” he said earlier in his recorded two-minute video message. “It is my duty as a Pakistani, a politician and the leader of the opposition to return to Pakistan.”

Mr Sharif, who had been facing criticism in the country over his extended stay in the UK, explained that he had earlier extended his stay in London to remain with Nawaz Sharif who had been awaiting a “heart intervention.”

“I wanted to be with my elder brother and the PML-N supreme leader. However, when I heard the news that Pakistan’s airspace is being closed from tonight (Saturday) I begged leave of my brother, who advised me that I should return to Pakistan as it is my duty to help the people in these times,” he said.

Earlier, Shahbaz Sharif had said in a statement that the government must prepare to enforce a lockdown in the country and finalise arrangements, including provision of food and other essential items, to save the nation from the coronavirus threat.

Mr Sharif said the lives of Pakistanis must not be jeopardised amid the worsening state of the Covid-19 outbreak. Therefore, he stressed that a lockdown, along the same lines as China, must be enforced and all required arrangements be made on a war footing.

He warned that a human catastrophe as a result of any further carelessness and dereliction in this regard would be absolutely unacceptable.

The PML-N president said the PTI government would be responsible for any and all consequences of delaying a lockdown, he warned.

Mr Sharif’s plan to return to the country was first announced by PML-N information secretary Marriyum Aurangzeb in a statement, saying that Shahbaz Sharif “is returning to play his role in saving the nation from coronavirus in the country”.

Ms Aurangzeb said the PML-N president had asked the party workers not to receive him at the airport due to the prevailing situation. She said though Nawaz Sharif was scheduled to undergo a surgical procedure next week, Shahbaz Sharif had to make the tough decision of being among fellow Pakistanis at this crucial moment.

She said Mr Shahbaz would play every possible role to protect the people of the country from the fatal pandemic.

The PML-N president had left for London in November last year with Nawaz Sharif, who was allowed to travel abroad by the government and courts for his medical treatment despite facing conviction in the Al-Azizia corruption reference.

PML-N vice-president Maryam Nawaz through her official social media account on Twitter posted the pictures of Shahbaz Sharif saying goodbye to his brother and mother before departure and also his video message.

With the pictures, she wrote that the Sharif brothers were the only hope for the people of Pakistan and “only you two are to make the country beautiful”.

Ms Nawaz, who is the daughter of Nawaz Sharif, said “even the worst opponents have to admit that the standards of public service set by Shahbaz Sharif have no match in the country’s history.”

Punjab Information Minister Fayyazul Hassan Chohan in a video message welcomed Mr Sharif’s decision on behalf of the PTI, the Punjab government and Chief Minister Usman Buzdar.

Mr Chohan said the PTI had decided to keep aside its political differences and work together to fight the coronavirus threat and hoped that there would be no political point scoring after Mr Sharif’s return to the country.

“He (Shahbaz Sharif) should come and play his role as a party head and the opposition leader,” the provincial minister said.

However, federal Minister for Science and Technology Fawad Chaudhry in his tweet suggested that Mr Sharif should be quarantined for 14 days after his arrival.

“This is my appeal to PM Imran Khan that he should give special permission for keeping Opposition Leader Shahbaz Sharif in a quarantine at Meo Hospital to make him realise the importance of a hospital,” Mr Chaudhry tweeted.

Published in Dawn, March 22nd, 2020