Govt in a fix over economy, contagion

Updated May 29 2020

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Cabinet body decides to recommend to Centre to open restaurants, resorts; PFA unable to enforce SOPs at 4,500 registered eateries.— AFP/File
Cabinet body decides to recommend to Centre to open restaurants, resorts; PFA unable to enforce SOPs at 4,500 registered eateries.— AFP/File

LAHORE: The Punjab government is finding itself in a catch-22 situation as it feels pushed to gradually open businesses to keep the wheel of the economy moving but its backlash in terms of surge in coronavirus infections and deaths is even more drastic.

A marathon meeting of the Cabinet Committee to Combat Coronavirus Threat at chief minister’s secretariat on Thursday reviewed the opening of markets and shopping malls [ahead of Eid] and came up with a projected finding that the coronavirus-positive patients might increase by 20 times, a source [in the meeting] told Dawn.

“When the government decides to open more and more businesses, general public believes that the coronavirus threat has subsided and comes out of houses without even observing basic SOPs,” the source said.

On the other hand, the source said, the government was constantly facing pressure from the restaurant industry as well as businesses at tourist spots including Murree and Galliat as the complete closure had not only put the sector under severe economic stress, rendering a large number of people jobless.

Cabinet body decides to recommend to Centre to open restaurants, resorts; PFA unable to enforce SOPs at 4,500 registered eateries

Feeling the pressure, the meeting chaired by senior minister Abdul Aleem Khan decided to recommend the federal government that the provincial government be allowed to open restaurants with specific SOPs as well as tourist spots in Punjab, including Murree and Galliat. A final decision to the effect will be taken at the meeting of the National Command and Control Centre (NCOC), the source said.

The meeting was informed that there were 4,500 registered restaurants besides unregistered ones in Lahore alone. Explaining the restaurant owners’ point of view, the meeting was told that the government had earlier allowed to operationalise take-away and home-delivery services but only around 10 per cent of total consumers used this facility during the past over two months. The meeting was told that only 25pc work force was engaged at restaurants, turning 75pc jobless.

The committee discussed that the restaurants be allowed to entertain customers to [maximum] half of their capacity and bar entry of people above 60 years of age.

Amidst committee members’ observations that SOPs had nowhere been observed instead taken for granted, the Punjab Food Authority officials also made it clear that the PFA would not be able to monitor even the [4,500] registered restaurants with its small force of inspectors.

“If the government decides to open the restaurants, don’t expect that a complete monitoring mechanism will be in place to check violations at all eateries,” a PFA senior official told the meeting. “There will be a serious issue of enforcement of SOPs,” the official observed.

Similarly, sources told Dawn that the Punjab government was facing protests from people related to the tourism industry at different resorts and the similar situation was brewing at the Murree Hills as they believed that their business was too short spanning over four months in summer. The committee discussed that a holistic policy be developed and an input should also be taken from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as it had yet not opened resorts including Swat, Kaghan and Naran.

DOCTORS: The cabinet committee reviewed the matter that the Punjab Public Service Commission (PPSC) was also barred from holding interviews of doctors as the government had imposed lockdown in the province. The PPSC had earlier conducted written test and declared its results for the recruitment of 1,000 doctors – ahead of the lockdown in the province.

Since the Punjab government is in dire need of more and more doctors, the committee decided that the PPSC should be allowed to hold interviews of doctors, who qualified written test, and recommend appointment of 1,000 medics to the Punjab health department.

When contacted, an official present in the meeting said there was opposition to keep on opening businesses and public places. However, the official said the government response was that it had become imperative to run the economy side by side not only to help people earn their livelihood but to collect taxes to run the affairs of the state. “Assure the government that the coronavirus will be eliminated in two months or three months, the government will make efforts to provide meals to locked-down people. But, the situation is not clear as to how long the nation will have to survive with the pandemic and this warrants the government to take even unwanted decisions,” the official explained the government response.

Meanwhile, a handout says, the committee directed ensuring implementation of its decision of decreasing public transport fares as well as asked the health department to daily brief the media about the actual situation of the virus.

The meeting was briefed that both the health departments were given a collective [Covid-19] budget of around Rs11.5 billion. The specialised healthcare department released Rs960 million to hospitals; spent Rs260m on PPEs procurement and Rs570m on medicines purchase. Funds of Rs5m to Rs100m were released to 24 hospitals according to their needs and both the departments spent around Rs5bn collectively. A field hospital in Expo Centre, Lahore, was established with an amount of Rs25m.

The meeting was told that 6,699 coronavirus patients had gone to their homes after recovery in Punjab. As many as 1,073 patients were admitted to the specialised healthcare department’s hospitals while 897 were under treatment in the primary and secondary healthcare department’s hospitals and 275 were under treatment in various private hospitals. As many as1,266 patients had been isolated at homes and 65 critical patients put on ventilators. The primary and secondary healthcare department traced 17,600 social contacts and around 125,000 tests had been conducted.

The meeting was attended by provincial ministers Basharat Raja, Dr Yasmin Rashid, Mian Aslam Iqbal, the chief secretary, IG Punjab, SMBR and other senior military and civil officers, while other officers joined through video link.

Published in Dawn, May 29th, 2020