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Don decries failure of authorities to keep country ticking despite lockdowns

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By Rathindra Kuruwita

Eighteen months had passed since the first lockdown but the government had not put a system in place for public servants to work from home and ensure service delivery, Prof Manuj Weerasinghe, Head of the Department of Community Medicine, University of Colombo said yesterday.

The government should now at least use the current lockdown to introduce a system for government employees to work remotely in the long term, he said.

Prof. Weerasinghe said that many public servants still worked maintaining files and digitalisation was still not widespread.

“It has been 18 months since the first lockdown, and we still don’t have a system where government servants can work from home. If we had started the digitization process and worked from home protocols in 2020, a lockdown wouldn’t affect the service delivery of the government. In fact, the government could have saved tens of millions every day by keeping most of its employees at home. In New Zealand they have the systems in place and they immediately shutdown the country after they found one delta case, but the government sector didn’t shut down,” he said.

A few months ago, the government decided to bring back all government sector workers to office and there was a massive congestion in public transport and that too probably contributed to the spread of the virus, Prof. Weerasinghe said adding that once the current lockdown was over and offices resumed, buses and trains would be packed, which in turn would lead to more COVID cases.

“The transport system is a big problem. We had 18 months to set up a working public transport system and we had done nothing. Once the lockdown ends and buses are on the road, you will see that we are back at square one. It’s as if the last 18 months never happened,” he said.

Prof. Weerasinghe said the government as well as the general public believed that once the vaccination was over, the country could go back to what it was before COVID-19. Thus, there was no interest in setting up any system. Taking the example of problems in the food distribution system, Prof. Weerasinghe said that there was a crisis in food distribution during COVID-19 because our cooperative system had collapsed.

“Because of this we encouraged mobile trucks to distribute food. When the country was shut for a few months in 2020, a system of distribution was established where essential items were brought near people’s homes. When the country was opened the system died a natural death. When we had to shut down again, it took a few days to set this system up anew. Again, we see some mobile vendors on the road, are we going to let this system die once we lift the lockdown? Or are we going to formalize this so that people don’t need to move about much?” he asked.

Prof. Weerasinghe added that many countries in the world had learnt from COVID-19 and had changed their systems to be more resilient. A number of protocols, from introducing new technologies to remote working, had been introduced to make the system more efficient and resilient beyond the pandemic, he said.

“The world won’t go back to 2019. Neither should we. We must look at establishing systems where essential items are delivered home and promoting remote work. We must get along with the times,” he said.



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Inter-provincial travel ban to be lifted on Oct. 31

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Flagrant violations largely ignored during restrictions

ECONOMYNEXT – The ongoing inter-provincial travel ban will be lifted on October 31, the national COVID-19 prevention task force said, despite social media accounts – and sometimes pictures – of people openly flouting the ban.

The restriction was imposed in conjunction with an island-wide lockdown, officially known as a quarantine curfew, that the government declared on August 20 amid a surge in COVID-19 cases.

Despite the lockdown being relaxed on October 01 as cases began to drop, the inter-province travel restriction has remained, at least on paper.

Critics, however, claim that people have been traveling – some even going on trips – around the country blatantly ignoring the ban, despite President Gotabaya Rajapaksa ordering the authorities to strictly enforce it from October 21.

“After a discussion among the task force on Friday (23), with the permission of the president, it was decided to lift the travel ban from 4am October 31,” Army Commander Gen Shavendra Silva told reporters on Friday.

Silva, who heads the national COVID-19 task force, said all public transportation services will also restart on October 25 and will operate according to health guidelines.

Health officials have joined the chorus of voices lamenting the apparent lax nature of the inter-provincial travel ban. The public does not seem to follow health guidelines increasing the risk of another wave of the epidemic, they have said.

“The behaviour of the public is not satisfactory,” Health Promotion Bureau Director Dr Ranjith Batuwanthudawa told the privately owned Derana network in an interview.

“The public did not follow the guidelines in the first long weekend after restrictions were relaxed. It can again increase the number of patients to a level the health sector cannot cope with,” he warned.

Meanwhile, Gen Silva said the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine will be administered as a booster dose for frontline workers in the health, military, police and tourism sectors starting November 01.

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North, East see highest attendance of students, teachers: Dinesh

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ECONOMYNEXT – Northern and Eastern provinces saw the highest attendance of students, teachers, and principals when schools were reopened for the first time in six months, Education Minister Dinesh Gunawardena told parliament on Friday (22).

Classes from grades 1 to 5 recommenced at 5,059 schools with fewer than 200 students on Thursday (21) amid an ongoing strike by teachers’ trade unions which is set to finally end next Monday (25).

Minister Gunawardena said the government was able to open around 98 percent of the targeted schools.

“Sixteen percent of students attended schools across the country, while 26 percent of teachers who signed their attendance,” Minister Gunawardena told parliament.

Principals showed up to work at 69 percent of schools with fewer than 200 students, in the island’s north, while 52 percent of teachers and 21 percent of students were present on Thursday, he said.

In the Eastern province, 67 percent of principals, 45 percent of teachers, and 39 percent of students went back to school on Thursday, he added.

In contrast, schools in the Southern and Western provinces saw lower levels of attendance from principals, teachers, and students, the minister said.

“We believe everyone will support the reopening of schools without any party or colour difference,” Minister Gunawardena said.

Trade unions are not fully onboard the government’s proposed solution to their long-standing grievance of salary anomalies.

The three-month-long strike, one of the longest trade union campaigns in Sri Lanka’s history, has deprived students of their only mode of distance learning in pandemic times: online education.

It is still uncertain if all principals will report to duty on Monday as some principals’ trade unions have said some of their demands including car permits and a mobile phone allowance have not been addressed yet.

School teachers and principals in Sri Lanka were on strike for the 99th day running on October 15 when they said they would start work from October 25.

The government proposed to increase their salaries in a four-year strategy, but upon the rejection of that proposal, the government later proposed to give the increments in two installments. The unions rejected this, too, and continued the strike, demanding that their salaries be increased in one go.

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Foreign Minister to launch Lanka-UK chamber of commerce in London

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by Sujeeva Nivunhella
reporting from London

Foreign Minister Prof G. L. Peiris is scheduled to be in London this week starting from tomorrow (25) for a series of events including the launching the Sri Lanka-UK Chamber of Commerce, diplomatic sources said

During his stay in London from Monday to Thursday (28), Prof Peiris is to meet his UK counterpart Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs and Minister for Women and Equalities, Elizabeth Truss and Members of the Houses of Parliament and Lord Naseby.

Sources said that it would be Prof Peiris’ first visit to London after assuming the duties as the Minister of Foreign Affairs.

The launch of the Sri Lanka – United Kingdom Chamber of Commerce is scheduled to be presided over by HSBC bank. Lord Davies of Abersoch, the UK Prime Minister’s Trade Envoy to Sri Lanka and a host of invitees including the representatives of the London Stock Exchange and De La Rue. The new Chamber is to be registered with both British Chamber of Commerce and the UK Companies House.

Prof Peiris is expected to complete his London visit on Thursday (28) and then to proceed to Glasgow to attend the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) which is scheduled to begin next Sunday (31).

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