Prime Minister Imran Khan on Thursday announced that the nationwide lockdown will be lifted in phases starting from Saturday (May 9).
The announcement came as Sindh and Punjab both crossed 9,000 cases on Thursday and reported their highest daily death tolls.
Punjab reported 26 deaths, the highest single-day total of any province so far, while Sindh reported 14 deaths. The total number of deaths countrywide have reached 585, registering a 100 per cent increase over the last 10 days.
"We know that we're doing it at a time when our curve is going up [...] but it is not edging up as we were expecting,” said the prime minister in a televised address alongside his aides after a meeting of the National Coordination Committee (NCC) in Islamabad. He warned that the restrictions could be restored anytime if the outbreak worsens.
Minister for Planning and Development Asad Umar said six major decisions have been taken by the government:
- More sectors related to construction will be opened
- Selected OPDs will be opened to treat specific diseases and illnesses
- Markets will open after sehri but close at 5pm
- Markets will remain closed for two days per week
- Small markets will also be allowed to open
- Schools to remain shut until July 15
"Earlier, we had decided to reopen our construction industry. Now we have decided to reopen more sectors related to the industry," Umar stated, as he explained that earlier decision to give permission to bigger markets to reopen will now be expanded to cover smaller markets as well.
Big shopping malls and other spaces which attract big crowds, however, would remain closed for now.
Umar said that the government deliberated opening markets after iftar but ended up deciding that markets should not open at night.
"Markets will open after sehri but they will have to close at 5pm," Umar said.
"Markets will remain closed two days a week. Our police officials need a much-needed respite [from enforcing lockdown measures]."
Umar added that OPDs in hospitals, which were shut during the lockdown, will now reopen in "selected and reserved" hospitals across the country.
'Take responsibility,' PM urges people
Prime Minister Imran said that the decision to lift the lockdown was taken "because our people are suffering", adding that everyone — from labourers, daily wage workers, rickshaw drivers to middle class families — was struggling financially due to the lockdown.
While acknowledging that the government has launched Ehsaas emergency cash programme — the most "expansive and generous" social welfare programme in the country's history — the prime minister noted that due to dwindling revenues, it was not possible for the government to keep its welfare services liquid for "much long".
Prime Minister Imran urged people to take responsibility once the lockdown is lifted, arguing that the success of the next phase depends on people following the standard operating procedures (SOPs) issued by the government.
"When I spoke to German chancellor Angela Merkel recently, she told me that fellow Germans were disciplined and would follow precautions and SOPs. Today, I'm requesting you, my fellow Pakistanis, to become responsible and intelligent citizens so that we can defeat this virus together," Khan said.
The premier added that all the industries that are allowed to reopen will have to follow the SOPs.
He warned that if people failed to follow the guidelines and SOPs, resulting in spike in cases and deaths, the government will be forced to enforce the lockdown again.
Prime Minister Imran also stated that public transport will remain shut over provinces' reservations, even if he personally believed otherwise.
"I believe public transport should be reopened because it is the common man's mode of transport but the provinces have reservations. And I have said from day one that we do not want to take decisions unless there is unanimity," Khan said.
The prime minister also acknowledged the recent spike in new coronavirus cases and deaths in the country. Citing the second "deadlier" outbreak of the 1918 Spanish Flu, he admitted that a second wave of new infections was a realistic possibility once the lockdown measures are lifted. But the prime minister said that "no one can say or predict for certain what will happen", adding that decisions have to be made to stop the suffering of people.
Schools to stay shut
Federal Education Minister Shafqat Mehmood, meanwhile, announced that all schools, universities and other educational institutions will remain closed till July 15.
He said that all board exams have been cancelled. "We will pass or fail students based on their results from the previous year," he announced.
"Students' health and their education cannot be compromised," he added.
The government had earlier announced that all education institutions will remain closed until May 31.
Prime Minister's focal person on Covid-19, Dr Faisal Sultan, said that the the trajectory of the spread of virus was different for each country.
"In the US, it spread like wildfire, where more Americans have now died from this virus than in Vietnam War," he said, adding that Pakistan will have to consider its own context for decision-making purposes.
Like the prime minister, Dr Sultan also acknowledged the sharp spike in new coronavirus cases in the country but reasoned that this was because "we are testing more and more people everyday".
He said that while some hospitals across the country were now running at full capacity, the healthcare system luckily did not collapse as was feared at the start of the outbreak.
Repatriation of Pakistanis continues
Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on National Security Dr Moeed Yusuf clarified that not all of the stranded Pakistanis being flown back to the country are testing positive for the coronavirus.
"This is a misconception. Please do not stigmatise those returning to the country," he requested.
He added that the government is in the process of talking to those countries from where 40 to 50 per cent of the returning passengers had tested positive.
Yusuf also stated that the country's air flights to repatriate stranded Pakistan will continue, as per the prime minister's directions, adding that it was not possible for the government to bring back all 120,000 registered at once.
"We can't bring back all at once because we would need to test every Pakistani coming back. We are considering [prime minister's] self-quarantine policy and if provinces agree, then we will be able to bring 13 to 14,000 people per week," Yusuf concluded.