ISLAMABAD: While the existing countrywide restrictions placed last month to slow the spread of coronavirus will remain enforced for two more weeks, Pakistan International Airlines will operate 17 special flights between April 4 and 11 to bring back around 2,000 overseas Pakistanis from different countries.

Both decisions were taken at a meeting of the prime minister-led National Coordination Committee, which was also attended by Chief of the Army Staff Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, on Wednesday. To ensure collective decisions, it was decided that the daily meetings of the National Coordination Committee would also be attended by the chief secretaries of all provinces through video links.

On Wednesday, the tally of confirmed coronavirus cases surged to over 2,200, with 31 deaths.

It was decided that goods transport movement would be restored to ensure adequate supply of essential food items amid lockdown. Besides, Prime Minister Imran Khan directed the relevant authorities to resume construction activities while keeping a balance between lockdown requirements and economic activities so that people in limited areas could work.

Briefing the media about the NCC meeting, Minister for Planning, Development and Special Initiatives Asad Umar said the participants were of the opinion that it was necessary to ensure availability of medicines, edible items, medical services and energy. “People will continue to cooperate [with the government] as long as they get basic necessities of life.”

• PIA to operate 17 special flights to bring back 2,000 overseas Pakistanis • Death toll rises to 31, with over 2,200 Covid-19 cases

He said data showed that some of the measures the government had taken worked. “Our R-naught value, which indicates how many people one contagious person will infect on average, is on the decline. This means that some of the steps we have taken to curb the spread of Covid-19 are working,” he added.

He said it was collectively decided at the NCC meeting to extend restrictions for two more weeks after which the situation would be reviewed, while no province would further intensify the restrictions during this period.

“Considering the problems of overseas Pakistanis it has been decided that the first flight would land at Islamabad International Airport on April 4. All passengers will be sent in quarantine and tested for Covid-19. Those tested negative will be sent home through special arrangement of transport. Moreover, those Pakistanis will have to stay in self-isolation and there will be a track and trace system in place for them. On April 5, the situation will be reviewed and then other flights will be allowed to land in Pakistan,” he said.

In the second phase, he said, Jinnah International Airport, Karachi would also be opened for international flights. However, domestic flight operations would remain suspended, he added.

Special Assistant to Prime Minister on National Security Dr Moeed Yusuf said the NCC decided that 2,000 overseas Pakistanis be brought from the United Kingdom, Canada, Turkey,

Malaysia, Azerbaijan and other countries through 17 flights. “All the planes of Pakistan International Airlines will be used for bringing the passengers and they would arrive from April 4 to 11 April,” he added.

Mr Yousuf said that the government’s greatest concern was potentially importing Covid-19 from abroad. “Therefore, every Pakistani who arrives in Islamabad in these flights will be tested,” he said, adding that initially 2,000 passengers would be brought home because of limited testing facility.

SAPM on Health Dr Zafar Mirza said the current trend of Covid-19 cases showed that the number of confirmed cases and mortality rate could be reduced. “Currently, educational institutions are closed and public gatherings are banned. However, we have received complaints that some offices and organisations have not withdrawn the condition of biometric attendance for essential staff. We suggest them to stop that practice,” he said.

While sharing some global figures of Covid-19 pandemic, the PM’s aide said over 42,000 patients had died while there were reports of over 860,000 confirmed cases. “However, the good news is that around 21 per cent patients have recovered globally,” he added.

Dr Mirza pointed out the measures which would remain enforced during the extended lockdown including closure of schools, colleges and universities; ban on mass public gatherings; social distancing; voluntary home quarantining and complete isolation on being tested positive for coronavirus.

Expressing satisfaction over what he believed “low intensity” of the viral disease, the PM’s aide said the lockdown situation could be relaxed to some extent only if people adhered to the government instruction of social distancing.

PM Relief Fund, SMS service

Besides the NCC meeting, Mr Khan launched PM Coronavirus Relief Fund and appealed to philanthropists and overseas Pakistanis to contribute to the fund. Citizens can send their donations to account number 4162786786 at the National Bank of Pakistan, Main Branch Karachi. Earlier on Monday, the premier had said that that those depositing money in the fund would not be asked about income source and would be given relaxation in taxes.

The PM also launched an SMS-based relief service under which four months stipend of Rs12,000 would be given to the less privileged and daily wage earners who were said to be the worst affected due to the lockdown and social distancing.

Special Assistant to the PM on Social Welfare Dr Sania Nishtar apprised the prime minister that the SMS campaign would be the entry point to identify these beneficiaries. She said through an aggressive communication campaign, citizens would be informed that they could send an SMS on 8171 to check their eligibility status.

In the event of their being eligible, they would receive an SMS message informing them of how to collect money. If they were not identified in the database, they would be directed to contact their respective district administration, she added.

Published in Dawn, April 2nd, 2020