Abuja and Lagos — The Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19 has recommended to President Muhammadu Buhari to allow states to decide on the reopening of schools, businesses and worship centres shut since March as part of the efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19.
The recommendation was among a raft of others, the PTF made to the president at a meeting yesterday at the State House ahead of his decision today on the next phase of action to take as the two-week extension of the easing of restrictions on socio-economic activities, which expires today.
The president had on May 18, extended the easing of the lockdown on the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Lagos and Ogun States as well as extending the 8 pm-6 am curfew imposed nationwide, the ban on interstate movements and the lockdown of Kano State.
However, the incidence of the pandemic has been on the rise as the virus infected 307 more people yesterday, bringing the total figure of confirmed cases to 10,162 with 3,007 persons discharged and 287 people dead.
The 307 new cases were reported from 15 states, including Lagos 188, FCT 44, Ogun 19, Kaduna 14, Oyo 12, Bayelsa nine, Gombe five, and Kano, three.
Delta, Imo, Rivers, Niger and Bauchi had two each, while Plateau and Kwara had one apiece.
The meeting of the PTF with the president was a sequel to the expiration of the extension of the easing of the lockdown, which commenced on May 18, by the federal government.
Already, there is anxiety on the next line of action of the president and its economic implications as the representatives of the Organised Private Sector (OPS) have called on the federal and state governments to direct a total relaxation of the lockdown to avert looming retrenchment of workers.
But the Nigeria Medical Association (NMA) and the Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria (PSN) called for an extension of the nationwide lockdown and stricter implementation of measures in place to curb community spread of COVID-19.
Speaking with State House reporters after the meeting, PTF Chairman and Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Mr. Boss Mustapha, said the task force, which met with the president to submit its fourth interim report to him on the successes and challenges recorded by the group in the last two weeks, would await the decisions of the president on its recommendations.
With the two-week extension which expire today, a fresh pronouncement by the president on the way forward must be made today.
The president is expected to unveil fresh guidelines on the way forward following the update he had received from the PTF.
Mustapha, however, said the issues bordering on re-opening of businesses, worship centres and schools, would be pushed to state and local governments, if the president approves their recommendations.
He was swift to add that the final decision on that will, however, be dependent on the expected presidential pronouncement.
He said: "The communities are in the states. So, the ownership of the next stage will be the responsibility of the states, the local government, the traditional institutions, the religious leaders at the different levels of our communities because that is where the problem is.
"So, the issues of places of worships, the issues of schools, the issues of some certain businesses that were not opened hitherto are part of the packages that we have looked at and we've made the appropriate recommendations. But you know that Mr.
President is the only one that can take decisions in respect of that."
Mustapha stated that the states, as a unit of the federation, also have their own responsibilities.
He added that PTF had met with religious leaders and had reached an agreement with them on guidelines to be observed in reopening the worship centres.
"In the framework, the states are sub-nationals, they have their own responsibilities too. So, it is in the exercise of those responsibilities that they had meetings with those religious bodies and agreed on the guidelines and protocols on how they open up. But in the framework of the national response, we are taking that into consideration," he added.
He also said the task force briefed the president on the challenges confronting the group, adding that Buhari assured members that the country was behind them.
He said the president expressed appreciation to health workers who are at the forefront of the battle to defeat the virus.
He stated that the meeting harped on the necessity to continuously persuade Nigerians to observe the prescribed protocols on how to stay safe.
"As far as the work of the PTF is concerned, he was upfront with his commendation and assured us that the nation is fully behind us in the work that he has charged us to do and that he's also appreciative of the work of the frontline workers, particularly the medical personnel, the security personnel and the people who come in contact with the patients in the time of collection of samples, the testings, the care that they are giving," he said.
Asked if Nigeria was winning the war against the virus, Mustapha answered in the affirmative, saying with only three per cent fatality rate while most countries grapple with over 10 per cent fatality rate, Nigeria is winning the fight.
"We are winning. As a matter of fact, you juxtapose the rate of cases with our fatality rate, which is basically about 3 per cent. In other countries and other climes, it's over 10 per cent, but the most important thing that you will realise, when we started this exercise, we had only five testing stations.
"Now, we've ramped it up to 28, without a correspondent increase in the number of deaths. We've gone beyond 60,000 now, that reflects in the number of confirmed cases," he said.
He quoted experts as saying that 80 per cent of victims may not know they have contracted the virus, adding that that accounts for the reason some people in isolation centres query why they are there.
According to him, one of the PTF's challenges presented to the president is the failures of some governors to cooperate with the task force.
"We discussed challenges generally and I believe that in the context of those discussions, certain steps will be taken.
"We are doing everything to ensure that the entire nation is on the same page with one response and it is very important that we realise that no state is an island unto itself when you deal with public health matters," he said.
OPS Seeks Total Reopening of Economy
Representatives of the OPS have called on the federal and state governments to direct full relaxation of the lockdown imposed on the country to contain the spread of COID-19 pandemic in order to avoid strangling the domestic economy and avert massive retrenchment of workers.
They called for the lifting of the curfew and the ban on interstate travel and the limited working hours imposed on government and private organisations.
The Director-General of the Nigeria Employers' Consultative Association (NECA), Dr. Timothy Olawale, told THISDAY that the effect of the initial lockdown was devastating on businesses while recovery after the partial lifting of the lockdown has been slow and uninspiring.
According to him, businesses, especially manufacturing concerns and those requiring shifts, could not function optimally because of the curfew and shortness of the hours available to work in the day time.
Olawale stated that the governments should avoid extending the lockdown because this is a critical time that businesses are in the process of making crucial decisions on whether to retrench or retain their workforce, warning that a stitch in time saves nine.
He said: "Full relaxation of the lockdown is needed to help save jobs before it will be too late. Moreover, nothing short of full-scale restoration of normal business will be good enough for businesses.
"COVID-19, as we have seen and judging from opinions of scientists, is not in a hurry to go. Therefore, we have to work out how to live with it through an informed and detailed protocol to protect ourselves."
Also, the Director-General of the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI), Dr. Muda Yusuf, said the federal government should commence a progressive easing of the lockdown to allow some sectors like the aviation, hospitality and transport to resume operations.
According to him, what is needed at the moment is nationally functional guidelines to enable Nigerians to be safe from the pandemic while pursuing their businesses.
He said: "Government should allow the domestic economy to function optimally and unconstrained in order to avoid double jeopardy, especially now that Nigeria is faced with a challenging external shock due to the slump in the oil prices.
"We must be thinking of things that will help the country to achieve the objectives the government has in mind like social distance, use of mask and not the ban on interstate travel and curfew that have been poorly implemented."
He also called on the federal government to lift the curfew and present a common national response that would end the confusion that arose from conflicting orders from the state governments on interstate movements.
NMA, PSN Demand Extension of Lockdown, Stricter Implementation
While the OPS has called for full relaxation of the lockdown, stakeholders in the health sector, including the NMA and the PSN have called on the federal government to extend the nationwide lockdown and institute stricter implementation of measures put in place against community spread of the disease.
Newly elected President of the NMA, Prof. Innocent Ujah, during an interview with THISDAY yesterday, said with the COVID-19 cases rising, it would be in order for the government to extend the lockdown and institute stricter implementation, as this would help slow down the spread of the virus.
He said: "But for this to happen, the government should also ensure there are palliatives on the ground for the poor. People on lockdown who make daily stipends will be affected. They should be provided with support.
"We have so far had a six-week lockdown. What has the implementation and compliance been? Have people started using face masks? Are Nigerians following social and physical distancing protocols? Did the implementation of the interstate lockdown work? We know social distancing is the most difficult protocol for Nigerians to comply with. In homes with 'face-me-I-face-you', are these protocols followed? These are the information we should know before a new order is made.
"By now the government should have told us the research it has done, and compliance level of this policy of lockdown. It should always take decisions based on scientific evidence. If these measures weren't followed, thereby causing an increase in the cases, it should further implement them."
On his part, the President of PSN, Mr. Sam Ohuabunwa, said it would be a mistake for the government to relax its healthcare protocols completely, especially as COVID-19 cases were still rising in the country.
"If we are to depend on science, it means the government should not loosen up completely when infection rates are climbing. What government needs is gradual easing while it maintains some restrictions.
"If the government opens up interstate and air travels, then we should be ready to have a spike in COVID-19 cases. This will not be very good for us, especially because of the state of our healthcare which is very fragile. We don't have sufficient isolation centres; we don't have enough medical personnel; we don't have enough personal protective equipment to handle major crises associated with the pandemic. We are still having an increase. This is not the time to ease our protocols," he added.
While calling on Nigerians to remain where they are as the virus will not move if they don't move, he said the government should enforce all the regulations earlier put in place, including the 8:00 pm nationwide curfew, interstate travel ban and closure of its airspace, adding that easing of lockdown should only happen when COVID-19 cases are flattening.
Lagos Releases Guidelines for Test Kits Validation from Companies
The Lagos State Biosecurity Governing Council has released guidelines for companies and organisations requesting validation for test kits from its bio-bank.
Rapid test kits have enabled nations battling COVID-19 to conduct several hundreds of thousands of tests daily on persons suspected to be infected by the virus.
Announcing this Sunday in a tweet, the Commissioner for Health, Lagos State, Prof.
Akin Abayomi, said the requirements included a letter of application for request, minimum of 300 units of Rapid Diagnostic Test Kits requiring validation, testing manuals for the kits, previous scientific publication on the kits, if available, and evidence of payment of validation study application fee.
He said: "Once applicants have met the requirements, the Lagos Bio-bank will conduct a validation study in line with best practices and issue a report accordingly. The report can then be used for application for product registration with the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC)."