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Primary Health Care Minister Dr. Sudarshani Fernandopulle said in Parliament yesterday that budgeting for COVID-19-prevention efforts is a global economic issue not limited to Sri Lanka alone.

She said that the country’s revenue streams have been blocked. “The income generated from our biggest foreign exchange earner, the garment industry, has suffered a huge blow. In addition, the coconut and rubber industries have also taken huge blows,” she added.

“We were able to control the first wave of the pandemic successfully. However, the new variants have increased the rate of infection. Moreover, the mortality rate has increased by 55%. While patients receive free medical treatment, the government has to endure a great expense. We have also increased the number of PCR tests being conducted; 18,670 PCR tests are being carried out by the government every day, costing around Rs.72 million,” the minister said.

“The private sector is conducting around 10,000 PCR tests per day. The government has carried out 3.9 million PCR tests in total. We will have to continue them while providing treatment facilities for patients. We cannot predict when this pandemic will end,” she added.

She also noted that with the emergence of the new variants, the need for oxygen has increased. “Therefore, we have increased the supply capacity of oxygen. The government had to spend a huge sum on quarantine processes and, even when people were allowed to self-isolate at home, the government provided them with the necessary supplies,” she added.

She also noted that the government has also given special preference to the vaccination drive. While the vaccination programme was launched and the government had ordered the needed vaccines, they were unable to get them. The government had signed contracts with India for a supply of 1.5 million vaccines. However, Sri Lanka had only received 500,000 because of rising case numbers in India.

Dr. Fernandopulle said that without the committed services of health officials, the government would not have been able to save the lives of many people. She thanked all the donors who had donated funds for COVID-19 prevention efforts, as well as all Divisional Secretaries, the Armed Forces, the Police, and government officials for their assistance.

Meanwhile, the Opposition questioned why the minister, who is a specialist in the field, was not given a bigger role to play in the COVID-19 prevention efforts. MP M.A. Sumanthiran pointed out that she should have been appointed to lead the programme. He said that despite Dr. Fernandopulle being a public health expert, her advice was not heeded, and that she had been sidelined. He questioned as to why the government had opted to entrust the COVID-19 prevention efforts to the military while having experts who were capable of handling the situation.

Entrepreneur vehicle leasing issues should be solved immediately – Dayasiri

The vehicle leasing and debt payment difficulties suffered by small and medium-scale entrepreneurs due to the COVID-19 pandemic should be resolved immediately, Batik, Handloom and Local Apparel Products State Minister Dayasiri Jayasekara stated in Parliament yesterday. He questioned whether mainstream electronic media in the country were reluctant to publicise the leasing crisis of the people due to the fear of losing advertisements from those companies.

The state minister said, “There are about 6,000 vehicles in the tourism industry in this country. When the country reopens, those people will not be able to resume work. The Central Bank has said to charge between an interest rate between 5.6% and 11.5% when it comes to vehicle leasing. These leasing companies charge a full 11.5% interest rate. This has become a major problem for the people in this country, from people with motorcycles and small lorries, to all entrepreneurs.”

“When we talk about the issue, these stories do not even go on some media channels. I wonder if these channels fear losing advertisements from such companies. I spoke with Central Bank officials yesterday about the issue and requested the Prime Minister to bring in some leasing companies and Central Bank officials to resolve the issue on behalf of the people,” he added.

State Minister Jayasekara also spoke about the GSP+ crisis faced by the country. “If we lose GSP+, the country will face a US$2 billion loss. Therefore, it is important to protect it. Some may say let’s go to the open market, but the garment industry in our country still does not have a suitable mechanism for such competition. We have talked about protecting Tamil prisoners for a long time. We have suggested to release them not because of this GSP+, but because they have suffered enough. Keeping people in prison without trial is a violation of human rights,” Jayasekara said.

He also drew the attention to several other issues faced by the garment industry. “A 6.2 billion target was given to the garment sector by the President and the Prime Minister. For the first quarter of this year alone, we earned US$ 2 billion. There are about four million small and medium-scale enterprises in Sri Lanka,” he said.

“After the vaccination process is complete and the country is reopened, small and medium-scale entrepreneurs should be given a grace period of at least two years to repay these loans and return to a stable position. That is their demand. They are not asking for a working capital. We look forward to discussing this with the President, the Prime Minister, and Minister Ajith Cabraal,” he added.

Government taking measures to procure AstraZeneca second dose – Pavitra

The government is taking all possible measures to get the second set of AstraZeneca doses for the 582,000 who only got its first dose, Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi said in Parliament yesterday.

She added that due to the present situation in India, manufactures have been unable to provide the second doses of the vaccine as expected earlier; the other countries that obtained the first dose of the vaccine now face the same issue. Some countries have substituted the second dose with the Pfizer-BioNTech and it has proven to be successful.

Wanniarachchi added that whether or not the same vaccine could be used here as a substitute for AstraZeneca, if the supply gets delayed further, has been directed to a Scientific Committee for consideration. The report is to be presented within two weeks, she added.

Minister Wanniarachchi said that 925,240 people were given the AstraZeneca vaccine’s first dose, and of them, 357,868 have received the second dose. She said that initially, the World Health Organisation had prescribed the second dose to be administered four weeks after the administration of the first dose, but it was later changed to 12 weeks and, eventually, to 16 weeks.

The minister said that as of June 20, 237,761 COVID-19 patients had been detected in the country. Of them, 33,738 persons are still receiving treatment, while 135 are in ICUs. The number of those discharged from hospitals stood at 201,389 the same day, while the death toll stood at 2,534, she added.

Wanniarachchi said that the country only had four labs that could carry out PCR tests in March, but now, that number stands at 30. The government aims to vaccinate at least 60% of the population, she said, adding that they have spent US$ 425.6 million on Pfizer-BioNTech, Sputnik V, AstraZeneca, and Sinopharm vaccines. The World Bank and the Asian Development Bank have agreed to provide the necessary funds, she added.

Opposition merely criticises Government without providing solutions – Semasinghe

The Opposition criticises the government’s mechanism on managing the pandemic without providing any proposals or solutions from their end, State Minister Shehan Semasinghe said in Parliament yesterday.

“The Opposition levels generalised criticism as if there is no pandemic in the country. We would like to clarify that many of the crises we are facing economically and socially are directly or indirectly connected to the pandemic. This is a global crisis. When the new government came to power, it had to shoulder an economy which was already suffering major shocks,” State Minister Semasinghe said.

“There are always governments that hinder the country’s economy, such as the one led by former President J.R. Jayewardene, as well as the previous Good Governance Government. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa strengthened the country’s economy before it saw a decline after the Good Governance Government took over in 2015,” he said.

 Sumanthiran urges Government to repeal Prevention of Terrorism Act

Tamil National Alliance MP M.A. Sumanthiran urged the government to repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), adding that although consecutive governments have promised to repeal it, no action had been taken over the past 10 years.

Speaking in Parliament yesterday, he said that without just limiting it to talk, the government should release political prisoners. “What is standing in the way of releasing them? You do not need 10 to 11 years to just talk about it. It is obvious why you are talking about it now.”

He said that the Prevention of Terrorism Act was introduced in 1979 for six months as a temporary provisions act. “Even now, it bears that name; that is how serious it is. It was made permanent in 1982. There is no point in threatening to repeal or change it. You should just do it; show it through your actions. You are only saying things because a meeting is around or a report is due.”

Sumanthiran said that he had welcomed Minister Namal Rajapaksa’s proposal without reservation because the government was trying to get a wrong message to the country to say that they are using it like a “beggar’s wound”, and that they want political prisoners incarcerated, not released. “That is far from the truth. We have asked for their release at every Parliament session.”

The MP challenged the government to release these political prisoners today, as it is Poson, adding that none of them needed to be incarcerated. “Between 2015 and 2019, over 100 Tamil political prisoners were released, but I am not satisfied with just that. We want everyone released,” he added.

Sumanthiran also raised a privilege issue in Parliament yesterday regarding the report on political victimisation not being available in English or Tamil.

He said that although a CD of it was given to them in Tamil, only part of the report was available. The Parliamentarian asked what the purpose was in recognising Tamil as an official language if even such important documents were not made available to them in Tamil.

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