The 20-member taskforce constituted by Punjab government to devise an exit strategy from the lockdown has suggested a phased easing out from the cubs, while expressing concerns over the state’s low testing rate and its alleged ill-preparedness to deal with a spike in cases as per a Niti Aayog projection.
Headed by former Chief Secretary K R Lakhanpal, the task force, in its 46-page report, has said: “The testing for COVID-19 even in big districts like Amritsar, and Patiala is quite low. Overall, probably because of various constraints and factors beyond control of the state, only 9,000 tests have been done. Currently, the state has only 25,000 RT-PCR test kits. The current daily testing capacity for RT-PCR tests is 1,200 tests only and is being increased to 2,000. One lakh Rapid Testing kits had been planned, but ICMR has suspended their use.”
It has suggested that all efforts must be made to purchase more testing kits, with special attention to testing in containment zones. The panel has said that the government should ultimately move to random testing to detect the prevalence of the virus in the community.
The committee also noted the mortality rate of Punjab to be very high the recovery rate to be quite low as compared to national average. It has also said that frontline medical staff should be provided all safety gear.
Niti Aayog projections
As per Niti Ayog projections, listed by the committee in the report, Punjab should have 3,612 ICU beds in phase 3, while it has only 922 beds. Similarly, the state’s requirement for non-ICU beds may be 6,923, while it has 4938 beds in non-ICU facility.
The report states: “If we go by projections of the Health Department and the projections of MoHFW, GoI the availability of beds appears to be satisfactory for now. However, compared to Niti Aayog projections there is significant shortfall,” adding that it is better to err on the side of caution.
It has also asked the government to take a fresh look at projections of the department regarding trajectory of the pandemic as a matter of abundant caution.
Quoting from the report, the task force has said: “The best-case scenario is doubling in 10 -12 days and in worst case scenario doubling in five days. Therefore, after considering the relevant factors, the likely scenario is four thousand cases by May-end and in the worst-case scenario eight thousand…”
The report says that the Punjab Health Department predicts that after the exit from the lockdown in a phased manner, virus is likely to remain suppressed in the months of May and June. “Understandably it is very difficult to predict the exact trajectory of the spread of the virus. The State Health Department projections and the projection calculated on the basis of MoHFW, GoI model have been looked into. These projections vary considerably from the projection of Niti Aayog according to which there may be 3,680 new COVID-19 cases per day from May 31. Niti Aayog projections appear to be worst case scenario projections. However, keeping in view the need of the times and unexpected trajectory of the virus and the fact that lockdown would be eased soon, it is better to err on the side of caution and to keep the Niti Aayog projections also in mind.”
The report says if the Centre extends lockdown once again till May 15, then the state should push to additionally allow operation of industrial and commercial units located in urban areas (outside of the containment zones), but not limiting to SEZs, EoUs, Industrial Estates & Industrial Townships. It has also recommended opening of small shops, businesses and industries in all but containment zones. The committee recommends that only 50 per cent labour should be allowed
with social distancing made mandatory.
While opining that there is no option, but to ease the lockdown, the committee has said that that the easing of restrictions cannot be sudden and complete. “It has to be calibrated to ensure that the gains made in controlling the virus thus far are not frittered away,” it said.
The committee has suggested the educational institutions be opened sans students, with the faculty attending office, to facilitate research, administrative tasks, and preparations for upcoming terms.
The foremost priority should be to allow research scholars to get back to work, but the school students should not be called to schools. Admissions should be made online with digital payments and the universities should gear themselves up to cater to enhanced admissions as the number of students immigrating abroad will decrease.
Making an observation that a disproportionately large chunk of revenue was being spent on salaries of its employees, the committee has recommended freezing of wage and DA of employees for a year. It has stated that while Haryana pays salaries equivalent to Centre, Punjab pays about 25 per cent more “without any justification.” The Pay Commission may be requested to keep this aspect in view, while recommending pay revision, it has said.
Relief for MSMEs, hospitality sector
The taskforce underlined that Punjab’s MSMEs are hit the hardest by COVID-19. It points out that given the industrial tariff structure, most of the subsidy goes to a few large power-guzzling units, adding that this distortion needs to be corrected to provide relief to MSMEs. It has said that hotels and restaurants should be charged industrial tariff rather than commercial tariff as at present.
The report states that the liquor is being sold (illegally), but Punjab government is not getting any revenue. This source of revenue needs to be safeguarded, before it is lost, it has recommended.
The committee has said that most businesses and industry have been shuttered and with them the capacity of the employers to retain and pay the labour. Pointing out that 14.5 lakh MSMEs of the state that employ over 24.8 lakh people are bearing the brunt of the lockdown, it has sought urgent support for 12 lakh migrant population to keep the state’s economic engine going.
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