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States can put curbs, but discussion must for lockdowns: MHA

States and Union territories (UTs) may impose local restrictions such as night curfews in order to curb the spread of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19), but they will have to consult the central government before imposing a lockdown outside containment zones, the Union ministry of home affairs (MHA) said in new guidelines released on Wednesday.

The standard operations procedures (SOPs), applicable for December, did not bring about any major changes or impose any significant restrictions. Instead, they focused on “Surveillance, Containment and Caution”, and aimed at consolidating “the substantial gains that have been achieved against the spread of Covid-19”.

The guidelines said that states and UTs “shall consider implementing staggered office timings and other suitable measures” in order to reduce the number of employees attending office at the same time in cities where the weekly case positivity rate — proportion of samples found positive for the Covid-19 — is more than 10%. The MHA document also laid stress on Covid-19-appropriate behaviour, asking states and UTs to consider actions, including levying fines on those not wearing masks in public and work spaces.

The guidelines asked authorities to ensure strict enforcement of wearing face masks, hand hygiene and social distancing. It said that to ensure social distancing in crowded places, especially in markets, weekly bazaars and public transport, the health and family welfare ministry will issue an SOP, which has to be strictly followed.

“…keeping in view the recent spike in new cases in few States/ UTs, ongoing festival season and onset of winter, it is emphasised that to fully overcome the pandemic, there is need to maintain caution and to strictly follow the prescribed containment strategy, focused on surveillance, containment and strict observance of the guidelines/ SOPs issued by MHA and Ministry of Health & Family Welfare (MOHFW).

“Local district, police and municipal authorities shall be responsible to ensure that the prescribed Containment measures are strictly followed. States and UTs, based on their assessment of the situation, may impose local restrictions, with a view to contain the spread of Covid-19,” said the home ministry’s guidelines.

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They added that state authorities shall not impose any lockdown outside containment zones without consulting the Union government. To be sure, the previous guidelines, applicable in November, contained the same clause.

The guidelines came in the backdrop of a surge in Covid-19 infections in several parts of the country after Diwali. Alarmed, the Centre has rushed special teams to eight states — Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Manipur, Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Punjab — over the past two weeks, while authorities in Delhi and at the Centre have held multiple meetings to devise strategies to contain what is viewed as the third wave to have hit the national capital.

As of Wednesday, total cases in the country stood at 9,222,216 and fatalities at 134,699. Over the past seven days (November 17-24), the number of new infections has grown by an average of 43,476 (7.96%) every day across the country. States such as Punjab, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh have recently released night curfews in select areas to curb the spread of the Sars-Cov-2 virus, which causes Covid-19.

The MHA guidelines asked local authorities to ensure a careful demarcation of containment at the micro level. It said that the list of containment zones will be notified on the websites by district collectors and will be shared with the MOHFW.

Listing down the SOPs concerning containment zones — the epicentre of an infection, the guidelines said that only essential activities will be allowed in these areas and that there shall be strict perimeter control, door-to-door surveillance and quick isolation of Covid-19 patients in treatment facilities or at home on case-by-case basis.

“Listing of contacts shall be carried out in respect of all persons found positive, along with their tracking, identification, quarantine and follow up of contacts for 14 days (80% of contacts to be traced in 72 hours),” the guidelines said. They added that the surveillance for “ILI/ SARI cases” (influenza-like illness and severe acute respiratory infections) will be carried out in health facilities or outreach mobile units or through fever clinics in buffer zones.

The MHA document stressed that all activities are allowed outside containment zones, though some are permitted with restrictions. These are: international air travel of passengers (as permitted by the government); cinema halls and theatres with up to 50% capacity; swimming pools (only for training of sportspersons); exhibition halls (only for business to business purposes); social, religious, sports, entertainment, educational, cultural, religious gatherings with up to a maximum of 50% of the hall capacity and a ceiling of 200 people in closed spaces. However, authorities are allowed to reduce the ceiling to 100 persons or less, in closed spaces.

The guidelines asked district, police and municipal authorities to ensure that the containment measures are strictly followed, and also instructed local officials to follow prescribed SOPs for activities permitted with restrictions.

The guidelines also said that there shall be no restriction on inter- and intra-state movement, “including those for cross land-border trade under Treaties with neighbouring countries”. No separate permission or e-permit will be required for such movements, they said.

The guidelines said that those above 65 and with co-morbidities, pregnant women and children below 10 years are advised to stay at home, and encouraged the use of the government’s contact-tracing mobile application, Aarogya Setu.

“Disease spread can be controlled even without implementing a lockdown, and by strictly following the fundamental principles for control of any communicable diseases, including observing respiratory etiquettes. All spikes that have been seen in this pandemic are because people dropped their guard and stopped following Covid-19 appropriate behavior such as wearing mask, maintaining social distancing and hygiene. Lockdown was meant to buy time to prepare country’s health infrastructure to handle patient load. That purpose has been solved,” said Jugal Kishore, head, department of community medicine, Safdarjung Hospital in Delhi.

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