Punjab govt orders fresh curbs to check COVID surge, educational institutions shut till month-end

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Chandigarh, Mar 19 (PTI) Amid a surge in coronavirus cases in Punjab, Chief Minister Amarinder Singh has ordered a slew of restrictions beginning Saturday which include closing of all educational institutions till month-end and curbs on cinema and mall capacities.

In the 11 worst-hit districts, a complete ban has been ordered on all social gatherings, except for funerals and weddings, which will be allowed with only 20 persons in attendance. This will be enforced from Sunday.

The chief minister also appealed to people to keep social activity in their homes to the bare minimum for the next two weeks to break the transmission chain, according to an official statement.

Not more than 10 visitors should be entertained in homes, he urged chairing a meeting of the COVID task force here.

The chief minister ordered compulsory wearing of face mask, directing police and the health authorities to take all those loitering in public areas without it to the nearest testing facility to ensure that they are not asymptomatic cases.

The situation will be reviewed after two weeks, said the chief minister.

Dr K K Talwar, who heads the state government's expert team on coronavirus, told the chief minister that the surge in cases appeared to be the result of the opening of schools and colleges, with young asymptomatic people appearing to be spreading the virus.

'All educational institutions, other than medical and nursing colleges, will remain closed till March 31,' the statement said.

In the wake of the spike in cases, the Department of School Education had last week declared preparatory leave for students of all classes.

Restriction of 50 per cent capacity will be there in cinema halls and not more than 100 persons in a mall at any time.

In the worst-hit districts, the chief minister has ordered cinemas, multiplexes, restaurants and malls to remain closed on Sundays though home deliveries will be allowed subject to night curfew.

The Punjab Congress too will not hold any political gathering for the next two weeks. The CM appealed to other political parties to keep their gatherings within the prescribed numbers—50 per cent of capacity, subject to a maximum of 100 people in closed and 200 in open spaces.

No political gatherings should take place in the most affected districts, he said.

Industries and essential services shall be allowed to function. Barring these, all restrictions shall be strictly enforced, the chief minister directed.

Food, Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs Minister Bharat Bhushan Ashu told the CM that the procurement of crops will start from April 10, instead of April 1, as the department needed more time to make arrangements to ensure safe procurement.

The CM also asked the Amritsar deputy commissioner to talk to the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbhandak Committee (SGPC) and the management of the Durgiana temple to encourage devotees to wear masks inside the shrines.

The rise in cases is a matter of serious concern, particularly in rural areas which had seen much fewer cases last year, said the chief minister. Health and Family Welfare Minister Balbir Sidhu told the CM that unlike past when there were more cases in cities, now infection numbers were almost equally divided between urban and rural areas.

In the 11 worst-affected districts of Ludhiana, Jalandhar, Patiala, Mohali, Amritsar, Hoshiarpur, Kapurthala, SBS Nagar, Fatehgarh Sahib, Ropar and Moga, the CM ordered curbs on in-person public dealings in government offices.

Amarinder Singh directed officials to encourage online mode for grievance redressal.

Starting next week, one hour of silence will be observed across the state every Saturday, from 11 am to 12 noon, in memory of those who lost their lives to COVID-19.

Directing health officials to ramp up testing to 35,000 per day, the chief minister said special focus should be on super spreaders, government employees and teachers in educational institutions.

Rapid antigen testing should be stepped up along with the RT-PCR testing, he ordered while directing contact tracing and testing to be taken up to 30 per positive person.

Dr K K Talwar said there is no evidence as of now to show that the spike is due to mutants as only two cases of new strains have been found in Punjab. The state currently has almost 40 per cent cases from under 30 population, he added.

As of Thursday, Punjab's infection tally was 2,05,418 while the total fatalities stood at 6,204, according to a medical bulletin.

Later at a review meeting, Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh asked all private and government hospitals to offer hassle-free vaccination services for at least eight hours daily till March 31.

He expressed concern that of 1,291 registered private facilities, 891 have reportedly not administered a single dose. He asked the district administrations to come down heavily on such hospitals.

Fearing a second wave, the CM asked officials to remain prepared for it.

From a low of around 200 cases daily and deaths in single digits, Punjab has gone to around 2,000 cases per day and the deaths are also increasing, he noted. PTI SUN VSD DV RDK RDK