Kerala government’s expert panel prepares road map for easing restrictions

Published : April 08, 2020 17:29 IST

Medical staff collect samples from people at a newly set-up Walk-In Sample Kiosk (WISK) to test for COVID-19 at Ernakulam Medical College on April 6. Photo: ARUN CHANDRABOSE/AFP

The expert committee appointed by the Government of Kerala to suggest ways for easing of COVID-19 lockdown restrictions has recommended a “gradual, phased and calibrated” withdrawal strategy in view of the “steep six-fold increase of COVID infection cases” in the country during the lockdown so far.

It has said that such a step is necessary to ensure that the COVID-19 case load is always kept below the (surge) capacity of the health care system to deal with it. The country and the States should prepare well for the “predicted and rapid” rise of the COVID-19 cases, expected to peak at different times in different States, and at least in some cities/States to exceed the local capacity, the report said.

It has also suggested that as different States are expected to pass through the peak infection at different timings, it is important to establish a national coordination mechanism so that States could support one another with experience, expertise, equipment and finances.

The committee headed by former chief secretary K.M. Abraham has said categorically that large-scale movement of people across international and State boundaries should continue to be restricted, wearing of masks and the use of sanitisers should from now on become part of everyday life and strict physical distancing norms should continue to be followed.

The committee recommends that the lockdown can be relaxed district-wise in three phases starting from the April 15. However, people should be made to understand that such a phased withdrawal will be sustainable only if there is a steady decline in the number of cases—leading to initial flattening of the infection curve and then gradual tapering of the curve to zero infection cases.

However, in the event of a resurgence, a complete lockdown should be reintroduced.

Three criteria

The committee has suggested three criteria for each phase of relaxation:

A district will qualify for phase one relaxation of restrictions only if (a) there has been not more than one new case in that district for the entire week prior to the date of review. (For the first review on April 14, the relevant period will be April 7-13, 2020); (b) there has been “no increase of more than 10 per cent” of the number of persons under home surveillance in that district (base as on April 7) as on the date of review; and (c) there are no hotspots of COVID infection anywhere in the district as identified by the State Health Department.

A district is to qualify for phase two relaxation of restrictions “at the time of second review” if (a) there has not been more than one new case of COVID infection in that district in the entire fortnight prior to the date of review; (b) there has been not more than 5 per cent increase in the number of persons under home surveillance in that district from the date of previous review; and (c) there are no COVID infection hotspots in the district.

To qualify for phase three relaxation of lockdown, a district should not have had (a) any new case of COVID infection in the fortnight prior to the date of third review; (b) there has been a decrease of more than five per cent of the number of persons under home surveillance in that district from the date of previous review; and (c) there are no hotspots of COVID infection anywhere in the district.

The restrictions on movement of people into the State are set to continue throughout all three phases and there will be no airline and rail movement of passengers into the State during the first phase of relaxation. International air travel and travel from other parts of India by air are not to be allowed till all lockdown restrictions are totally withdrawn in the State. But during phase three of the relaxation, NRKs (non-resident Keralites) stranded in various countries, may be allowed to return to Kerala, but they may have to undergo serological tests and follow strict quarantine guidelines.

The committee has recommended allowing domestic flights only during phase three and that too only for essential passengers, doctors, health workers, patients and so on, with the flights allowed to operate only at 50 per cent capacity.

Even short distance bus travel within cities and towns, and movement of autos and taxis are to be allowed with seating limits, only from the second phase of easing of restrictions. Inter-district bus travel is to be allowed only during phase three. All such travel will require passengers observing physical distance protocols and seating norms.

Moreover, even private vehicle movement is to be regulated during phase one, using a system that allows vehicles with odd and even registration numbers to move only on specified days of the week, except Sundays, when there will be a total clampdown on all vehiclular movement, except those used for critical services and emergency operations.

During phase one, only one person per house will be allowed to go outside at a time for a specific purpose and for not more than three hours at a time (other than for exempted activities). Moreover, people can move out of homes only if they wear face masks and carry a valid identity document. Person above 65 with a history of comorbidity (hypertension, diabetes) or undergoing any treatment for cancer or other major ailments are not to be permitted movement outside their homes without special passes obtained for the purpose.

Even regular exercise outdoors is restricted during phase one. From the next phase, people are allowed “to walk for at least half an hour in the immediate vicinity (within a radius of 0.5 km) of their residence before 7.30 a.m. in the morning, keeping a safe distance of at least two meters from the nearest person”.

Places of worship are to remain closed and religious gatherings are not to be allowed during all three phases of easing of restrictions. Marriages, political meetings or conferences and cultural gatherings with large congregation of people too are to be prohibited till all restrictions are lifted.

No gathering for any purpose of more than five persons is to be permitted and marriage and funeral gatherings should be restricted to not more than 10 of the nearest kith and kin during the first phase. In Phase Two, attendance at marriages and funerals are to be restricted to 20 persons.

Government offices and banks are to be allowed to function with staggered 50 per cent roster-based attendance and follow a five-day week during the first phase of the restrictions. Total employees at any worksite (other than government offices) shall be restricted to 10 persons or 25 per cent of staff strength, whichever is higher, during phase one and 20 persons or 25 per cent of staff strength, whichever is higher, during phase two.

The owner of the establishment will be bound to observe this restriction as well as follow physical distancing protocols. Failure to do so will be tantamount to an offence under the relevant provisions of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, and Disaster Management Acts, 2005.

Activities under the NREGS and functioning of micro, small and medium enterprises (MSME) are to be allowed with protocols (use of cloth masks and sanitisers) from Phase Two.

Only during phase three will universities, schools and colleges be allowed to be opened, and that too only for holding examinations. Seating arrangements in such institutions should follow the safe distance rule and halls should have adequate supply of hand sanitisers at entry points.

IT companies may also be allowed to open partially during this phase, with staff engaged in production and development of software applications continuing to work from home. Hostel and residential facilities may also be allowed to be opened in phase three, with strict norms against overcrowding.

Super markets, malls, theatres, bars, conference halls and all such facilities with centralised air-conditioning systems will remain closed during all phases. However, shopping malls/stores may be allowed to function with crowd and physical distance restrictions from phase three. Home delivery services are to be encouraged with the cooperation of mall/store owners and a system of taking prior appointment through phone and online should be introduced so that shopkeepers can space the number of customers visiting their shop, the committee has said.

Sale of liquor, a major revenue earner for the State, may be started by the State beverages Corporation during phase three, the committee has said.

In addition, the committee has also recommended certain important adjustments to the lockdown restrictions now in vogue in order to “keep the supply chain for essential services and commodities undisrupted”.

It has provided an indicative list of commodities/activities for immediate removal of restriction. They include agricultural operations; supply of milk, vegetable, fruits etc; rice and grain mills; fish and cold chain units; local markets for farm produce; all grocery and provision stores; small workshops, lathes, welding units; repair shops for electrical gadgets and machines; production units for essential commodities (factories and non-factory manufacturing units); artisan units (e.g. cobblers, tailors, laundry services, barbers, photostat shops operated by one person etc.); cleaning and utility services for flats, apartments and residences in urban areas; movement of domestic workers; takeaway/parcel delivery of food packets from any restaurant without any dine-in facility; parcel and transport services; services of domestic helpers and those providing personalised assistance for the elderly/disabled.