NCOC bans wedding ceremonies, public meetings as cases rise

• 4,767 new cases take toll to 654,591 • With 57 new deaths, fatality rate inches up to 2.2pc

ISLAMABAD: As the nation struggles to contain a third wave of coronavirus, the National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC) on Sunday announced a complete ban on wedding ceremonies — both in marquees and halls — sports activities and public meetings from April 5.

A meeting of the federal government’s central body dealing with the pandemic further decided to provide “updated hotspot maps to provinces for enforcement of expanded lockdowns” from Monday (tomorrow), the NCOC said in a series of tweets.

The decisions taken during the meeting will be implemented in districts and cities with an 8 percent transmission rate, it said.

However, the forum said, provinces “will be at liberty to implement restrictions in early time frame as per the situation on ground”.

In a press statement issued after the meeting, the NCOC said the government is also considering the prospects of imposing targeted restrictions on inter-provincial travelling.

“Various options for reduction of inter-provincial transport were [being] considered,” the statement read.

“However, a final decision will be taken based on the input from all provinces and an analysis of the data about the number of inter-provincial commuters via air, rail, and road.”

During the meeting, provinces were directed to ensure that vaccination targets, given by the NCOC, are met in a timely manner. “Correct and timely data ingestion in NIMS be ensured by all provinces,” it said.

The developments come as the government portal keeping track of the outbreak in Pakistan registered close to 4,767 new cases in the last 24 hours — up from 4,468 a day earlier — the highest number of daily infections in nearly nine months. It also reported 57 new deaths from Covid-related complications.

Minister for Planning and Development Asad Umar, who also heads NCOC, on Saturday warned the country could soon surpass the peak witnessed in the first wave due to continued violation of government-devised health guidelines and slow pace of vaccination.

He said on Sunday that the government “has decided to further tighten restrictions” in view of rising cases.

INFECTIONS SURGE:

Infections have surged in the country in recent days, with more than 72,000 reported in March alone.

Government data shows the rate of people testing positive for Covid-19 had alarmingly risen to more than 10 per cent from a low of about 3 per cent in January, suggesting the actual number of infections is likely much higher than the reported cases.

The third wave is largely being driven by a high number of cases reported in Punjab, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP).

The government suggested a British variant of the virus, detected in Pakistan in February, was likely behind the flare-up in infections. “This relatively more contagious and deadlier variant seems to be a major cause for the sudden and sharp increase in the spread of the disease,” Umar told reporters.

The variant — B.1.1.7, also known as VOC (“variant of concern”) 202012/01 — drove a surge in cases that flooded England’s hospitals, pushed its death toll above 125,000, and triggered travel bans by dozens of countries.

As part of its restrictive measures to limit the outbreak, Punjab has imposed a “smart lockdown” across 27 neighbourhoods of Lahore.

“There has been a constant increase in positivity percentage and prevalence of Covid-19 in the Province of Punjab during the last two weeks, which poses a serious and imminent threat to public health. Hence, it is mandatory to take all possible safety measures for prevention and control of this disease,” a notification issued by the provincial government said.

Last week, the government said existing coronavirus restrictions would continue for at least three more weeks. They include targeted quarantines in hotspots, with no movement allowed, except for emergencies.

Educational institutions have also been closed until at least April 11 in districts with high infection rates.

VACCINATION DRIVE:

Earlier this week, the government bought more than 1 million doses of Chinese Sinopharm and CanSino Biologics Covid-19 vaccines, its first purchase from any manufacturer having previously relied on donations.

The shots are due to be delivered before the end of this month, with talks under way for another 7 million doses from the same companies.

The government is currently vaccinating frontline healthcare workers and citizens over the age of 60 free of charge using over 1 million Sinopharm doses donated by China in February.

Pakistan has so far relied on such donations and on allocations from the World Health Organisation-backed COVAX/GAVI scheme for developing nations.

The first COVAX/GAVI batch of up to 4 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine had been due to be delivered to Pakistan this month, Umar said, adding it was delayed due to the issues the vaccine was facing worldwide.

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