ISLAMABAD: The National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC) on Covid-19 on Wednesday warned that coronavirus restrictions could be imposed again – including closure of services — if the standard operating procedures (SOPs) were issued by the government continued to be flouted.

Declaring the transport sector, markets, marriage halls, restaurants and public gatherings as high-risk areas, the centre advised provinces to focus on them and take steps to prevent the spread of the virus.

These observations were made after a special session was held at the NCOC to monitor the rising infection trend. Chief secretaries of all the provinces attended the session.

According to a statement issued by the Ministry of National Health Services, the NCOC has been closely monitoring the situation and will take action if there is no improvement in the compliance of standard operating procedures (SOPs).

Situation worsening in Karachi, Hyderabad, Multan, Islamabad, Muzaffarabad, Mirpur and Gilgit, says Dr Sultan

There was a clear resurgence of the virus and the number of deaths was also increasing, the statement said, adding that the chief secretaries had been asked to strictly enforce the SOPs.

“Strict punitive actions on SOPs’ violations will be initiated,” it stated.

140% increase in coronavirus mortality rate

The statement by the NCOC comes a day after Minister for Planning Asad Umar said that the COVID-19 mortality rate in Pakistan has increased by 140% in the last week and warned the public against ignoring the safety protocols.

Gatherings the main cause of Covid-19 spread

Gatherings are the main cause of the spread of Covid-19, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on National Health Services (NHS) Dr Faisal Sultan told a Senate committee on Wednesday.

While briefing the Senate Standing Committee on NHS, Dr Sultan claimed that educational institutions were following standard operating procedure (SOP) to limit the spread of Covid-19.

However, the committee, which is headed by PPP Senator Sikandar Mandhro, recommended that the Ministry of NHS take measures to ensure masks are available to the public for free or, if that is not possible, at least take steps to ensure their affordability.

The committee was discussing a matter of public importance raised by PTI Senator Zeeshan Khanzada titled ‘Outbreak of Coronavirus and Precautionary Measures in Pakistan’, which was referred to the committee for consideration.

The NHS ministry informed senators that Covid-19 cases have risen by 2.4pc which, while not alarming, must be taken seriously.

Dr Sultan said the provinces should take stringent measures to ensure Covid-19 SOP is implemented.

The committee disposed of the matter with a recommendation to provide the best possible relief to the public.

It also took up the grant of budget honoraria arrears to medical and paramedical staff working at the Parliament House dispensary, which was announced by the finance minister for employees working within the corridors of parliament. The committee took notice of the summary, which has been pending for 11 months.

Dr Sultan said he would look into the matter personally and ensure it is sorted out as soon as possible.

The Committee directed that all correspondence and documentation regarding this issue must be submitted to the committee and representatives of the Economic Coordination Committee and the Ministry of Finance must be summoned.

Deliberating over the issue of transfers of doctors in Polyclinic, the committee was assured that all the details would be submitted to the committee within two weeks.

Meanwhile, speaking at the launch of a report titled Pakistan’s Fight Against Covid-19 by the Centre for Research and Security Studies (CRSS) in Islamabad, the special assistant said there has already been a slight but definitive rise in Covid-19 cases, but the second wave, or the so-called winter pandemic, can be avoided with the right efforts and precautions.

He added that the threat of Covid-19 is ever-present, and with respiratory diseases traditionally gaining momentum in the winter, caution is even more necessary.

Dr Sultan was He said that the initial polar public perception has transformed into unipolar perception in favour of ‘smart lockdowns’. He added that other countries with a similar socioeconomic infrastructure have not fared well, in addition to countries where federal structures have been devolved.

Regarding a vaccine for Covid-19, Dr Sultan said that if and when a vaccine is available Pakistan will prioritise subsets of the population first, such as people who are high risk or are frontline workers.

“We have to carefully allocate resources for vaccination as Pakistan does not have sufficient resources to invest in all the global vaccination efforts. The advantage Pakistan has is that our polio vaccination teams can quickly and efficiently inoculate the population, though unlike polio, it will not be a simultaneous, mass effort,” he said.

The CRSS report said that Pakistan had, against all forecasts and odds, bent the Covid-19 curve in its favour.

Broadly speaking, the creation of a central mechanism for all coordination, collation, decision-making and implementation in the form of the National Command and Operation Centre, piggybacking on the polio surveillance network, and dramatically ramping up healthcare infrastructure resulted in a strong response to the pandemic.

Despite the demonstrable success of curbing mechanisms, this is no time to celebrate or drop our collective guard, Dr Sultan said.

“The threat of the Covid-19 pandemic is very real and ever-present. Continued caution and stringent adherence to Covid-19 [standard operating procedure] are crucial to ensure the current situation stays under control. Without vigilance from every member of the general public, and continued pressure from the government, this disease could spread easily and wreak havoc,” he said.

The novel coronavirus was first detected in China in December last year which then spread to other countries. Pakistan closed its borders and took a number of steps to stop the spread. The first case of the virus was reported in Pakistan in the last week of February.

On March 13, a meeting of the National Security Committee, comprising top civil and military leadership, was held to discuss the crisis after it was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation.

Prime Minister Imran Khan, who had chaired the meeting, directed the authorities to devise a comprehensive strategy to check the spread of the disease.

Lockdown was announced on March 16 and a number of industries, educational institutions, restaurants and marriage halls were closed.

The National Disaster Management Authority was involved to ensure availability of medical equipment and health-related supplies at the earliest.

After the construction industry was opened on Aug 7, the National Coordination Committee on Covid-19 lifted restrictions on tourism on Aug 8 and on restaurants and transport sector from Aug 10. It also gave a timetable for opening other sectors, including educational institutions and marriage halls.

After easing of restrictions, a large number of people thronged public spots without following the SOPs. As a result, tourist destinations in Gilgit-Baltistan had to be closed.