Curbs extended for 2 more weeks

-Restrictions eased on construction, low-risk sectors
-Ordinance to regulate construction stimulus package
-PM upbeat over success to control virus spread, low fatalities

By Ajmal Khan Yousafzai

ISLAMABAD, Apr 14 (APP): Easing restrictions for various low-risk industries and sectors, including construction, chemical manufacturing, fertilizers, mining, glass manufacturing and some others, Prime Minister Imran Khan Tuesday said it was decided to extend the ongoing countrywide lockdown for another two weeks.
The prime minister, in a televised media-briefing about various decisions taken during the National Coordination Committee (NCC), said the decision to extend the lockdown, which was aimed at containing the spread of COVID-19, was taken with consensus and in consultation with all the provinces.
He, however, added that keeping in view the hardships and unemployment faced by daily-wagers and small businesses due to the lockdown, it was decided to open the construction industry and other low-risk sectors. The prime minister was flanked by Minister for Planning Asad Umar, Minister for Economic Affairs Hammad Azhar and Special Assistant to the PM on Health Dr Zafar Mirza, SAPM on National Security Moeed Yousaf and SAPM on Information and Broadcasting Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan.
He said the government, through an ordinance to be issued on Wednesday, would also announce a historic stimulus incentives package for the promotion of construction industry and creation of job opportunities in the country.
The prime minister referred to the issue of undue price-hike of essential food items caused by smuggling and hoarding, and said the government in order to check the illegal acts would also introduce an ordinance in a day or two. Under the proposed ordinance, he said, the people involved in smuggling and hoarding of essential and basic food commodities, including wheat, would be dealt with sternly.
The prime minister warned that the government, in order to save the masses from undue price-hike caused by hoarding of commodities particularly in the holy month of Ramazan, would not only take action against the managers involved in hoarding but would also catch the owners.
He said as the holy month of Ramadan was round the corner, he would soon hold a meeting with Ulema and religious scholars of different schools of thought to reach a consensus and have a national response on how to continue with religious activities and create a balance during the holy month in the wake of threat posed by COVID-19.
Prime Minister Imran Khan on Tuesday announced that the restrictions imposed by the government on public gatherings, assemblies and the opening of educational institutions would remain in place another two weeks.
Sharing the decisions taken by a meeting of the National Coordination Committee (NCC) with the media, the premier noted that the government had announced a lockdown after 26 cases were confirmed in the country and thanked the public for restricting themselves to their homes in the subsequent days. “I am glad to share that the coronavirus spread only 30 per cent of what the government had projected because of the way the people observed the lockdown in difficult times,” he said.
However, the premier cautioned the people against stopping to observe precautionary measures, saying infections from the virus could spike at any time.
In order to ease the economic impact from the ongoing crisis, Prime Minister Imran said the government was providing financial assistance to the people through its flagship Ehsaas programme and had decided against interfering in any agricultural activities in the rural areas.
He said all the provinces had also reached “98pc consensus” on which industries to reopen and which would remain closed. The prime minister clarified that the Centre would not impose its decisions onto the province, which he said have the right to further delay the opening of industries if they so wish.
He also announced that the government will bring an ordinance for the construction industry by tomorrow, under which the industry will be given a stimulus package to start construction in the country. In view of the holy month of Ramazan, which is starting later this month, Prime Minister Imran said the government will consult with ulema from all schools of thought and guide the public on how they can balance between offering prayers and preventing the spread of Covid-19.
The premier revealed that the government will soon introduce another ordinance under which “strict punishments” will be meted out to those smuggling wheat and dollars and the people who resort to hoarding food items and create artificial inflation with the arrival of Ramazan. Prime Minister Imran acknowledged that in the current state of affairs, any step that the government decides to take carries its own risk. “On one hand we have corona and on the other we have hunger … this is why we are doing a balancing act,” he said.
‘No room for complacency’
Special Assistant to Prime Minister on Health Dr Zafar Mirza said experts had projected that coronavirus cases in Pakistan would exceed 18,000 by April 14, but the figure so far is two-thirds less than the prediction. He said while this was a welcome development, “there is absolutely no room to become complacent and forget the precautions we should take.”
The government had also projected that the country would have recorded 191 deaths by April 14, but the actual number was 96. The nearly 100 deaths were avoided, in part, due to the travelling and social restrictions announced by the government, Mirza said. Minister for Planning, Development and Special Initiatives Asad Umar in his remarks denied the claims that there was a “lack of coordination” between the federal and provincial governments in the coronavirus response.
He said never before have the federal, provincial and regional governments coordinated in such an “organised and structured” manner during an emergency situation as they are doing currently, using the forum of the NCC.
‘Low-risk industries’ to be reopened
Minister for Industries Hammad Azhar said that the government had “identified industries where there is a low risk of the virus spreading” and they will be allowed to operate with standard operating procedures in place. Those industries include: chemical and manufacturing plants, e-commerce for export, e-commerce for local deliveries of necessary items, software development and programming, paper and packaging units, Industries whose labour is present in their premises, Cement and fertiliser plants, Mines and mineral, Dry cleaners and laundry services, Horticulture nurseries, Units making agricultural machinery, Glass manufacturing, Veterinary services, All export industries provided their orders are confirmed by the Trade Development Authority of Pakistan, Books and stationery shops
He noted that the industries and supply chains linked to essential food items, medicines, agriculture, fuel, media, banking and relief activities are already functional in the country. Azhar said the federal government proposed that the construction sector be reopened in phases. However, the federal and provincial governments agreed that these industries be opened forthwith: cement plants, brick kilns, stone crushing plants and units making prefabricated materials.
Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on National Security Dr Moeed Yusuf said it was decided in the NCC meeting that six airports across the country will remain open and after April 20, 6,000-7,000 Pakistanis stranded abroad will be brought home every week.
He said the government was currently focused on bringing back labourers stuck in the Gulf countries, Pakistani inmates released by some countries, Umrah pilgrims and people whose visas have expired.
In the next few days, the Pakistanis struck in Afghanistan will also be allowed to cross the border after which they will be quarantined, Yusuf added.
Earlier in the day, the government’s chief spokesperson Firdous Ashiq Awan had said that Prime Minister Imran would brief the media on the decisions taken by the NCC meeting in the evening.
She reiterated that the country was fighting against coronavirus and poverty simultaneously. On Monday, Planning Minister Umar had stated that the government’s strategy from day one has been to bring all the provinces and stakeholders on board before taking decisions.
Umar said that the federal government needed to transition from a strategy of total lockdown to a strategy of testing, tracing and quarantining (TTQ) to return to normalcy. “If we shut everything down to stop coronavirus, we will never be able to get back on our feet. This is exactly why we need a strategy of testing, tracing and quarantining,” reasoned Umar, adding that countries that employed a similar strategy were now on the verge of reopening their economies.