No scientific basis to lock down country - Dr. Sudarshini Fernandopulle | Sunday Observer
New variant of Covid-19 in 82 countries

No scientific basis to lock down country - Dr. Sudarshini Fernandopulle

21 February, 2021

State Minister of Primary Health Care, Epidemics and Covid-19 Disease Control Dr. Sudarshini Fernandopulle said that there is no scientific basis for a lock down of the country as the variant of Covid-19 has been detected in 82 countries and not only in the United Kingdom (UK). The State Minister in an interview with the Sunday Observer said, just because a new variant was identified, it doesn’t mean that you have to lock down the country and it also depends on the number of cases reported.

If we observe a rapid spread of the infection, we may have to do it in the future but not right now. She said as a Government, we have been able to control the pandemic while maintaining normal life. This is a global pandemic and we should not take political advantage from it. We have to give clear and uniform messages irrespective of politics. Any criticism made should be constructive and not politically biased.

Q: As speculated by the media will the country be locked down due to the spread of new strain of Covid-19?

A: Of course not. There is no rapid spreading of the new strain of Covid-19. They have detected only 16 cases where 13 are from those who had returned from overseas.

They have already been quarantined for 14 days. There are three cases that are being monitored and the investigations are carried out by the Epidemiology Department. There is no need for a lock down of the country. Of course, whenever there are new clusters, the movement in those clusters will be restricted. Right now, there is no necessity for a lock down.

Q: Will any travel restrictions be implemented in the areas where a large number of people are infected with the new strain of the virus?

A: As I mentioned earlier, only 16 cases have been detected. Of them 13 have already completed the 14 days quarantine. Only three persons who were tested positive were sent to the intermediate care centres. So, they have already been distanced from society. Therefore, there is no risk of others getting infected.

Q: Has any decision been taken to halt weddings, parties and other functions attended by a large number of persons?

A: Yes. Because it was noted that the significant number of new clusters have been linked to weddings and parties where there had been gatherings. So, the Ministry of Health has taken a decision to revert back to the old instructions.

When the cases were reduced, they gradually relaxed the numbers that would be invited for weddings and other functions based on the need of the people. During the past one month, we have sorted around 700 to 800 cases.

After observing that the majority of these clusters were attributed to some weddings and other functions, a decision was taken by the Health Ministry to reduce the maximum number of persons attending a wedding to 50 while instructions have been given to complete funeral arrangements within 24 hours.

Q: Any research being done to find out how this new strain of Covid-19 entered the country and the methods to control the spread of it expeditiously?

A: The Epidemiology Unit is looking into this. Of the 16 detected cases, 13 were from quarantine centres who have already completed 14 days quarantine period. So, there is no risk of the community getting infected from this. There are three cases in which the Epidemiology Unit is still conducting investigations.

Q: The President of the Public Health Inspectors Union of Sri Lanka (PHIUSL) Upul Rohana had said that if the country is not locked down even for a few days, owing to the new strain of Covid-19 that has entered the country, then it will be closed down automatically. Would you like to comment on this?

A: There is no scientific basis for a lock down because this variant has been detected in 82 countries and not only in the UK. So, this variant may come from overseas or even from the new patients.

That warning was given even earlier. This virus keeps on changing. Even the media had reported that another new strain had been identified in the UK. This can happen. Just because a new variant was identified, it doesn’t mean that you have to lock down the country. It depends on the number of cases reported. If we observe a rapid spread of the infection, we may have to do it in the future but not right now.

Q: Some Samagi Jana Balaya (SJB) parliamentarians have slammed the Government’s move to give priority to administer Covid-19 vaccines to Parliamentarians disregarding workers in other essential sectors. Your comments?

A: Parliamentarians also meet a lot of people. We saw some parliamentarians tested positive for Covid-19 as they had attended a large number of meetings. As a result, a large number of people had to be quarantined and the Polymerize Chain Reaction (PCR tests) had to be done.

Even Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi became a victim. Very often, it is difficult to isolate Parliamentarians as they have to attend so many events.

Therefore, it has been decided to give the Covid-19 vaccine to the 225 Members of Parliament as well. It is considered they are at a high risk as they associate with a large number of people. If one is infected then there is a risk of spreading it to others.

Q: The President of the College of Medical Laboratory Science, Sri Lanka (CMLSSL) Ravi Kumudesh has raised concerns that dumping the remaining Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine liquid found in the vial after the final dose is drawn out was a waste since it is adequate to administer another dose. Is there any truth in this?

A: Actually, this multi-dose vials contains 6.2 ml and the guideline was that it can be given to 10 people since during the withdrawal process there is some sort of wastage.

For taking into account all these procedures only, the general guideline was issued that it could be given to 10 people. The experts said an extra dose could be given if there was remaining liquid in the vial after the initial 10 doses were drawn out. This was identified and now it has been advised to administer 11 doses. This is a practical procedure done by humans and not machines.

Once you get to that 0.5 ml it gets locked automatically. So, the wastage is very minimal. From the vials which was meant for 10 people, it was observed that it could be given for 11, and now it is being done.

Q: How would you respond to Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa and some other Opposition lawmakers claiming that the Government has failed to control the second wave of Covid-19?

A: I categorically reject that. It is a baseless allegation as the Government has been able to control it while opening up the country. Like the first wave of Covid-19, the entire country was not locked down. While continuing the normal functions, the Government has been able to control it.

Of course, in most countries, they are still trying to control the second wave as there are new variants. Most of these countries are now focusing on vaccination. Likewise, Sri Lanka is also focusing vaccination.

There was an allegation that we are not ready for vaccination but we started it ahead of schedule. We are now in the process of purchasing the Covid-19 vaccine. In addition, under the World Health Organisation’s (WHO’s) COVAX facility, Sri Lanka will receive a consignment of Covid-19 vaccine by the end of this month or during first week of March.

As a Government, we have been able to control the pandemic while maintaining the normal life. I must also say this is a global pandemic and we should not take political advantage from such a situation. The Government needs the support of the people as their behaviour also matters in the control of this disease. The Government can’t control the people’s behaviour.

The people will have to be very cooperative such as wearing facemasks, maintaining the social distance, following the proper health guidelines and avoiding crowded places. The most important three factors are to avoid crowded places, closed places and close contacts.

These three guidelines have to be strictly adhered to. This is very important. I think irrespective of politics, we have to give clear and uniform messages. The criticism should be constructive and not politically biased.

Q: Is there any issue pertaining to the Muslim burial issue as the health authorities say no permission has been granted so far for Muslims who die of Covid-19 to be buried?

A: The burial issue is not targeting a particular religious or ethnic group. The technical committee has decided that all deaths due to Covid-19 should be cremated based on scientific grounds. Some scientists and geologists say there is a risk of burying the Covid-19 dead bodies.

I think the present law only permits for cremation. It is not targeting any ethnic or religious group. In all religions, they practice burial. Only the deaths that occurred due to Covid-19 are cremated. I think we should not be fighting about dead bodies.

It is very important to prevent deaths due to Covid-19. We should talk about saving the people and try to prevent them dying because of this pandemic. Those who are arguing about the dead, have never spoken a word about the importance of preventing deaths.

Q: The Opposition political parties have expressed opposition to the recommendations of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry that probed allegations of political victimisation which the Cabinet of Ministers has given the green light to implement its recommendations. Your views?

A: That was a Presidential Commission which looked into the allegations of political victimisation. The people were politically victimised during the tenure of the Yahapalana Government.

They also formed a new wing in the Police and they were targeting their political opponents. Actually, it is the Opposition which makes this allegation and not individuals or independent people. So, it is a baseless allegation.

Q: Is there any crisis within the Government as claimed by the Opposition that says Minister Wimal Weerawansa’s issue is a clear reflection of it?

A: There is no crisis whatsoever within the Government. When you are in the Government, there are different opinions and views which are expressed by its coalition partners. However, there is no crisis as such.

Of course, there are different political parties as the Sri Lanka Podujana Perumana (SLPP) led Government is a broad political alliance.

So, there are different views, opinions and the policies of some parties are different but there is no issue. All are together and we all have a responsibility on behalf of the people who elected us.

Q: Will there be any political engagement regarding India’s ruling party BJP’s statement of forming a branch in Sri Lanka?

A: I see it as an infringement on our sovereignty. How can a political party in one country form a branch here? We are not a part of India.

Q: Archbishop of Colombo Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith told the media recently that he may have to seek the intervention of the International Criminal Court (ICC) if the law is not properly enforced against those who were responsible for the Easter Sunday terror attacks in 2019. Do you think the Government will be able to bring the culprits to book without delay?

A: I think the Presidential Commission of Inquiry that probed the Easter Sunday attacks has handed over its final report to the President.

The Government will take action based on its recommendations. It is the responsibility of the Government to punish the culprits who are responsible for this disaster and to prevent the occurrence of such terrorist acts of extremist religious groups. I am confident the Government will fulfill that task.