New Delhi: Amid the central government is considering the state governments' as well as experts' requests to extend the COVID-1 lockdown beyond April 14, a Group of Ministers (GoM) on COVID19 on Tuesday recommended extension of closure of all schools and colleges and restricting all religious activities having public participation till May 15. A meeting of the GoM chaired by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and participated by key members of Union cabinet concluded that religious centres, shopping malls and educational institutions must not be allowed to resume normal functioning at least for four weeks from April 14, irrespective of whether the government extends the 21-day lockdown or not.
Sources said these could be an indication that the government, which is expected to lift the countrywide lockdown over coronavirus, will do so in a staggered manner.
The thinking in the government is that schools and colleges will more or less remain shut till end of June as the summer vacation will start from middle of May, news agency PTI quoted sources as saying.
In an interview to PTI on Sunday, the Union HRD Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal 'Nishank' said the government will take a decision on reopening of schools and colleges on April 14 after reviewing the coronavirus situation in the country while adding that the safety of students and teachers is of utmost importance to the government and that his ministry is prepared to ensure there is no academic loss to students if educational institutions needed to remain shut beyond April 14, when the ongoing 21-day lockdown is slated to end.
The meeting was attended by several key members of the Union Cabinet including Home Minister Amit Shah, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, Food Minister Ram Vilas Paswan, Railways Minister Piyush Goyal and Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan, Rural Development Minister Narendra Singh Tomar and HRD Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank.
Chemicals and Fertilisers Minister D V Sadananda Gowda, Women and Child Development Minister Smriti Zubin Irani and Jal Shakti Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat were also among those who attended the meeting..
The GoM recommended that activities of all religious organisations should not be allowed till May 15 as a precautionary measure to check spread of coronavirus infection, the sources added.
The GoM has been tasked with monitoring the overall situation in the country arising out of the coronavirus pandemic and make recommendations to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The GoM also briefly discussed possible scenarios after end of the current spell of the lockdown.
It recommended that the inputs of the states are crucial in taking specific decisions on measures to contain the pandemic.
The GoM also recommended measures to enhance testing facilities for coronavirus infection in medical laboratories, the sources said.
Opposition leaders as well as leading healthcare experts have been pressing the government to ramp up infrastructure to increase coronavirus tests across the country to have a realistic assessment of the situation arising out of the pandemic in India.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who announced the lockdown on March 24, had said yesterday that in the fight against the highly contagious virus, people must be prepared for the long haul. At a cabinet meeting, he had urged ministers to come up with a "graded plan", which was seen by many to indicate a gradual rollback.
Union Minister Prakash Javadekar said after the meeting that a decision would be taken "in the national interest" at the right time. "We are monitoring the world situation every minute. A decision will be taken in the national interest. A decision in this regard will be declared at the right time," Mr Javadekar said, adding that an empowered group of officials was assessing the situation.
Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhara Rao is among those who have pitched for extending the lockdown.
India registered 508 new coronavirus cases in the last 24 hours, the government said on Tuesday, taking the total to 4,789 while the number of deaths rose to 124 with 13 new ones.
The growth is slower than Monday's when 704 new cases were reported but in line with that seen in the three days before it.
The number is also relatively less than some countries such as the United States where fatalities from the respiratory disease has topped 10,000.