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November 19, 2020

IHC order for govt: Stop large public rallies

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November 19, 2020

ISLAMABAD: The Islamabad High Court (IHC) on Wednesday noted contradictions in the government’s policies to contain the rising spread of coronavirus in the country and said it is the responsibility of the government to stop big gatherings.

A single-judge bench comprising Chief Justice Athar Minallah made the observation while hearing a petition challenging the government’s decision to ban indoor weddings.

Justice Athar Minallah said the current wave of infections was more serious and needed extreme caution. Noting that the UK police have been authorised to penalise those violating COVID-19 standard operating procedures (SOPs), he said it was the government’s responsibility to ensure enforcement of the safety guidelines.

Athar Minallah remarked that the government has banned indoor wedding ceremonies in view of the coronavirus pandemic but it is holding large gatherings itself. He said that the country's more than 7,000 death toll was "not due to coronavirus but due to ignoring the responsibilities of controlling the spread of the pandemic". “The coronavirus claimed lives of your father and Peshawar High Court (PHC) Chief Justice Waqar Seth,” he said, addressing the petitioner’s counsel Sardar Taimoor Aslam. “We should voluntarily shut down everything.”

To which, Taimoor Aslam replied that Prime Minister Imran Khan has directed against closing down businesses.

Justice Athar Minallah said the decisions made by the NCOC should be trusted. "A national institution has made the decision (to ban indoor events), the court cannot raise a question on this."

He added that these were extraordinary times and no one knew what the future would hold. "These gatherings can also happen in the future," he said, referring to indoor events.

However, he told the attorney general to consult with marquee owners before taking such decisions.

The hearing was also attended by Attorney General for Pakistan Khalid Javed Khan, Additional Attorney General Tariq Khokhar, and Deputy Attorney General Tayyab Shah.

“We cannot ignore the coronavirus situation,” said Khalid Javed Khan. “For us, it is saving lives versus saving livelihoods. A complete shutdown is easy, but we are not headed that way. The decision will be taken by the federal and provincial governments,” he added.

The judge observed that the petition was filed when the government itself was non-serious about the issue. Noting the COVID-19 SOPs violations during electioneering ahead of the polls in Gilgit-Baltistan, he said the situation was “worrying”.

“This is why the premier postponed his rally,” said Khalid Javed Khan. The judge noted that it “is the poor people who bear the brunt. The rich have access to facilities”. He added that the premier should be an example for others.

Justice Athar Minallah expressed dismay at the Parliament for not playing its due role despite one of its members dying due to coronavirus. “We have high expectations from the Parliament. We don’t know what the future holds. No one seems to think that they can be next (victim of COVID-19).”

The judge said it was time for all political forces to unite against the virus. “Extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary leadership,” he observed.

“We trust the experts’ opinion and government measures. You and I both need to follow the COVID-19 SOPs,” said Justice Athar Minallah.

The petition had sought that the NCC's decision to ban indoor marriages, set to go into effect on November 20, be declared null as it is "without any legal and rational basis, arbitrary and discriminatory and violative of Articles 4, 18 and 25 of the Constitution".

The NCC, in a meeting on November 16, had decided that all outdoor gatherings of more than 300 persons will be banned immediately. The SOP implementation shall be the responsibility of the organisers and they would be liable for any death or spread of COVID-19 due to these gatherings as per law.

From November 20, no indoor event will be allowed; only outdoor events with maximum of 300 guests will be allowed.

Indoor dinning was allowed for present, but it will be reviewed in a week’s time. The public is strongly encouraged to use either outdoor or takeaway options. This is in view of high risk of transmission of virus in close indoor settings especially when masks are taken off during eating.

The option of early/extended winter vacations will be reviewed after consultation by Federal Education and Professional Training Division with all provinces/federating units, in a week’s time. It was proposed that winter vacations must be held in educational institutions in phased manner.

Reiteration of enforcement of masks in all closed and crowded spaces by local authorities as previously decided will be ensured.

Meanwhile, the Federal Education Ministry in its proposals has suggested that educational institutions must be closed from November 24 till January 31 in phases as part of extended winter vacations to avoid the spread of coronavirus.

The proposals shared with provincial governments suggested that the primary schools be closed from November 24, middle schools from December 02 and higher secondary schools be closed from December 15. The proposals say that teachers must ensure their attendance and make preparations for online classes. Arrangements must also be made for tele-school.

It is proposed that the education session must be extended to May 31 and matriculation and intermediate exams may be taken in June 2021.

Decision on the proposals will be taken during Monday’s (November 23) meeting of federal and provincial ministers of education on Monday next. Provincial education ministers will present their own suggestions during the meeting.