With the number of COVID-19 cases in India nearing the 5,000-mark, the Centre is considering suggestions from a number of states that the restrictions in place during the 21-day national lockdown should be extended beyond the deadline of April 14, government sources said.
On Tuesday, an informal Group of Ministers meeting on Covid-19 discussed the steps and protocols to be adopted after the lockdown, but sources said most states have suggested to Prime Minister Narendra Modi that they prefer continuing the lockdown to contain the outbreak.
“The central government is thinking on the same line, but the Prime Minister will take a final call after considering all aspects and discussing with experts. We are sure that every state will follow the decisions he takes,” said sources.
Since the Prime Minister’s video-conference with chief ministers last week, at least seven states, including Maharashtra with the maximum number of cases (868) so far, have indicated that they would continue to have some restrictions in place after the 21-day period.
The chief ministers had conveyed to the Prime Minister that they would prefer to take some steps to revive the farming and manufacturing sector. The Centre had also signalled that there could be a “staggered exit” from the lockdown while continuing curbs in areas identified as hotspots.
Government sources said there would be clarity on the situation only after April 10, once testing is stepped up and results show the outbreak’s trajectory. “As you can clearly see, it is not as if the disease has affected the whole country — it is just 284 districts, not even half the country so far. So it is perhaps safe to say that about 60 per cent of the country can hope to see some relaxation in lockdown after April 14. It cannot be business as usual. But at the same time, the current stringent restrictions cannot continue indefinitely,” said sources.
Officially, though, the government has sought repeatedly to dispel speculation of the lockdown being extended beyond April 14. Lav Agarwal, Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Health, cited Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba’s clarification last week, denying any possibility of an extension of the lockdown. “It is true that states are asking for extension and all of that is being looked into.
As and when a decision is taken after discussions, I will let you know,” he said. At the same time, however, Agarwal made a strong case for the lockdown. “An ICMR study has shown that one infected person can infect 406 others. But when he is in lockdown, that number is down to 2.5,” he said.
With most states in favour of stretching the curbs, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, who had said Monday that the lockdown would be lifted in his state next week, did a U-turn and called for the restrictions to be extended. Madhya Pradesh has recorded 229 cases for far, with half of them reported among health officials.
In Jaipur, Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot said that the lockdown “will not be lifted in one go”. “We have imposed curfew in at least 40 places… we will have to lift it in phase-wise,” he said.
Gehlot, however, said that 21 days was too long a period to confine people in their homes. “And all factories, small and big industries…everything is shut because of the lockdown. You can understand where we are heading economically. The entire country is worried, the common man is concerned… we are all worried. But we cannot take any step that endangers lives,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Group of Ministers headed by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh discussed measures to enable operations in the farming sector. “This is the harvest season, and the focus was on how to smoothen the process. There is already some relaxation in movement of machines and for labourers. But there is lack of information on the ground…this has to be communicated properly and states encouraged to expedite work,” said sources.
“What the GoM is doing is preparing the measures and steps to be taken, as and when the lockdown is lifted. It could be staggered, it could be extended — the Prime Minister will take a call on that. But we are getting ready for it. as and when it happens,” said sources.
Those who attended the GoM — its fourth meeting since March 25 — included Home Minister Amit Shah, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, Chemical and Fertilisers Minister D V Sadanand Gowda, and Consumer Affairs, Food and PDS Minister Ram Vilas Paswan. Rajnath Singh is expected to give inputs to the Prime Minister based the GoM’s discussions, sources said.
“The Ministers were briefed that supply of essential goods was continuing smoothly…The GoM felt that places where the public have a tendency to gather in large numbers, such as religious centres, should be monitored and any such gathering prevented. Increased monitoring through drones was also suggested,” said sources. The Ministers also recommended measures to enhance testing facilities in labs.