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EC Extends Campaigning Restrictions For Rest Phases Of Polls In Bengal

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In the light of the spiralling coronavirus crisis in the country, the Election Commission of India has issued an order to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic during the remaining phases of assembly elections. The Commission has extended the silence period for rallies, public meetings, street plays, nukkad sabhas, bike rallies or any gathering for campaigning purposes to 72 hours before the end of the polls for Phase 6, 7 and 8 in the state of West Bengal.

In general, this period is 48 hours, which means parties and candidates can’t campaign for two days before the elections, now this restriction extends to three days.

Moreover, the poll panel has also reduced the hours available for the election campaign. No rallies, no public meetings, street plays, Nukkad sabhas, shall be allowed on any day during the campaign between 7 pm and 10 am with effect from 7 pm of 16 April 2021, the order released by the Election Commission on Friday said.

In its order, the Election Commission issued a stern admonition to the political parties for occasional violations of the COVID guidelines issued by the poll body during the announcement of the assembly elections for the states of Assam, West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and UT of Puducherry.

Taking cognisance of the prevailing unprecedented coronavirus crisis in the country, the Election Commission has asked candidates and political parties to ensure absolute adherence to COVID guidelines in letter and spirit. Violations, if any shall be sternly dealt with and action, including criminal action can be initiated as per the extant legal framework.

The order also mentioned that it would be the responsibility of organisers of public meetings, rallies, etc. to provide masks and sanitisers to every person attending these gatherings at their own cost and account for it in their expenditure. The polls body also asked organisers to ensure proper usage of masks, sanitisers, and also be responsible for maintaining minimum social distancing by everyone.

The EC also asked star campaigners, political leaders, candidates to set an example by following the COVID guidelines and also nudge their followers to do the same while addressing rallies, election meetings and other public events.

District Election Officers and Returning Officers shall take strict measures to enforced COVID guidelines during the elections, the order said, adding that they can cancel public meetings, rallies in case there are violations.

“Special observers and General, Police and Expenditure Observers shall strictly monitor compliance of COVID norms during campaign,” the order said.

The new guidelines will be applicable for the last three phases of assembly elections in West Bengal on 22, 26 and 29 April. The next and fifth phase of polls will take place tomorrow, which means campaigning for it is already over as per existing rules. The elections in Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry are already over by 6th April, waiting for the results on 2nd May.

Measures taken by Election Commission to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic

Listing down the measures to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, the Commission said that it has undertaken intensive awareness campaigns to educate voters and all stakeholders connected to the election process regarding the process of fighting against the coronavirus outbreak.

The maximum number of electors per booth has been reduced to 1000 from 1500. Simultaneously, the facilities of casting the postal ballot has been extended to PWD electors, 80+ year old, and COVID-19 suspect/positive patients.

The poll body has mandated the use of masks, face shield, sanitiser, gloves by the polling authorities during the process. Likewise, voters have also been asked to mandatorily wear masks while casting their votes. Stock of reserve masks is kept at the booths for providing to default electors.

Thermal screenings of electors will be conducted by health workers at all polling centres. If anyone has temperature higher than normal temperature, he/she will need to come in the last hour of the poll fixed for COVID-19 patients.

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Delhi police interrogates Youth Congress president in court ordered probe

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The Delhi police today questioned Youth Congress president Srinivas B V over the allegations of illegal procurement and distribution of Covid-19 drugs in an ongoing investigation ordered by the Delhi High Court. The police have already questioned some AAP and BJP leaders in the case, and will question more politicians from various parties.

A team of the Delhi Police Crime Branch today reached the headquarters of the Indian Youth Congress to interrogate President Srinivas B V about the source of COVID-19 relief material his organisation is using to help the people. The police were acting on the directions of the Delhi High Court, who had asked it to conduct an enquiry into the involvement of politicians in the alleged illegal distribution of COVID-19 medicines.

While the Congress party raised an outrage over the questioning, and ‘neutral’ journalists questioned the appropriateness of investigating someone for distributing Covid-19 aid, it may be noted that BJP leaders have also been questioned and are being questioned in the same case. On May 11, Delhi BJP leader Harish Khuranna had informed that he was also questioned by Delhi Police, and he had given a statement.

“I gave them my statement and said I have never hoarded, purchased or sold any medicines. I went through official channels to help people get access to medicines. They showed me a copy of the High Court order based on which the enquiry is taking place,” Khurana said.

On the same day, the Delhi Police Crime Branch had questioned AAP MLA Dilip Pandey too in connection with alleged “illegal distribution of Covid medicines, etc”.

Delhi HC directs Police to enquire into the charge of “medical-mafia-political nexus” in the distribution of COVID-19 medicines

The inquiry by the Delhi Police is being conducted in accordance with a Delhi High Court order, which asked them to carry out an investigation into the involvement of politicians in the alleged illegal distribution of COVID-19 medicines. The Delhi Police is likely to summon BJP MP Gautam Gambhir, who is also at the forefront of helping people during the second wave of the coronavirus outbreak.

A petition was filed by Dr Deepak Singh, Chairman of Hruduya Foundation, in the Delhi High Court, seeking a CBI probe into an alleged “medical mafia-politician nexus” and illegal distribution of COVID medicines by politicians. The petitioner had mentioned Gambir, Srinivas, as well as BJP leaders Sujay Vikhe, Gautam Gambhir and Shirish Chaudhari, Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and Congress MLA Mukesh Sharma, NCP leaders Sharad Pawar and Rohit Pawar, citing the instances of Remdesivir distributed by them. The petition had also asked for the detention of such persons for allegedly indulging in black-marketing of Covid-19 medicines as per the National Security Act, 1980, and to disqualify the MLAs and MPs.

The court on May 4 had turned down the plea of filing FIR and CBI probe, but had asked the Delhi Police to examine the issue. The Court had asked the police to look into the instances of politicians allegedly directly procuring Remdesivir and distributing them to Covid-19 patients, and to file FIR if any irregularities were found. The court asked the state to file a status report within a week and listed the case for hearing on May 17.

“In case alleged incidents are found to have taken place in Delhi, Delhi Police should take appropriate steps by registration of FIR,” said the division bench of Justice Vipin Sanghi and Justice Rekha Palli in an order.

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Surge Tests, Vaccine Measures as B1.617.2 Covid-19 Variant Spreads Rapidly in Parts of UK

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The case numbers related to the B1.617.2 variant of Covid-19, first identified in India, have more than doubled within a week in the UK, resulting in further surge testing and enhanced vaccine measures to be deployed in parts of the country where the strain is beginning to spread increasingly rapidly. Public Health England (PHE) said on Thursday that its latest analysis shows the number of cases of the highly transmissible variant first detected in Maharashtra has risen from 520 last week to 1,313 cases this week.

Most cases are in the northwest of England, with some in London, and additional measures are being put in place to “rapidly break chains of transmission”. UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the health authorities are monitoring the situation very carefully and will not hesitate to take further action if necessary, indicating that the roadmap to lifting all lockdown measures from June 21 may have to be reassessed.

This data demonstrates why our swift and decisive measures are in place. Everyone has a part to play in controlling this variant, from participating in surge testing, to following the rules, to getting the jab, said Hancock. We are committed to working with local areas and deploying our world-leading genomic sequencing to get this variant under control. We are supporting areas where the cases of this variant are rising, he said.

The minister said it is imperative that people who live in one of the 15 areas currently covered by surge testing processes get a free PCR test and everyone who’s eligible needs to come forward and get their vaccine. PHE said that while there is no firm evidence yet to show this variant has any greater impact on the severity of disease or that it evades vaccines, the “speed of growth is concerning”.

UK Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi said the authorities are looking at how to best utilise the vaccine roll-out to protect the most vulnerable in the context of the current epidemiology, including the possibility of bringing forward the second doses for the most vulnerable in some of the most affected areas. Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Manchester, one of the hotspots of the variant, has also called for a speeding up in the age eligibility criteria for vaccines in the affected areas. The National Health Service (NHS) is now offering a jab to all over the age of 38.

Cases of this variant are rising in the community and we are continuously monitoring its spread and severity to ensure we take rapid public health action, said Dr Susan Hopkins, Covid-19 Strategic Response Director at PHE. Testing and isolating when required not only limits spread, it helps us to better understand how the variant behaves in the community which is vital to taking effective and proportionate action moving forward “The way to limit the spread of all variants is the same. Keep your distance, wash your hands regularly and thoroughly, cover your nose and mouth when inside, keep buildings well ventilated and meet people from other households outside, she said.

The variant was confirmed as a “Variant of Concern” by PHE on May 7 after a rise in cases and evidence of spread in some areas. Since then across the northwest of England, significant work is underway with local councils and partners. In Bolton, mobile testing units have been deployed and door to door PCR testing has been offered to 22,000 residents. A vaccine bus has been established in the heart of the community to increase vaccine uptake as part of a wider drive.

PCR testing, whole genome sequencing and enhanced contact tracing are being used throughout London to target the many small dispersed clusters. All positive tests in London with a high enough viral load are also being prioritised for genomic sequencing to check for variants, and surge testing can begin immediately if it is needed. Taking this community-led approach has already proved effective in reducing transmission of variants in London to date, PHE said.

To help identify variant cases, surge testing is being deployed in 15 areas across England to suppress transmission, with more than 800,000 additional PCR test kits distributed. According to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), over 4,400 cases and over 14,000 close contacts have been traced and instructed to self-isolate.

Over 200 existing test sites and 130 schools have distributed test kits, with Mobile Testing Units deployed to provide PCR testing for people without symptoms. The public is also being urged to continue to take up the offer of two free rapid tests a week, to help identify asymptomatic cases. Anyone who does test positive in this way should take a follow-up PCR test, which can be sent for genome sequencing to help catch new variant cases.

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National Platform to Determine Impact of Covid-19 Vaccines to Be Established Soon

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A national tracking platform will be established soon to determine the impact of the jabs against COVID-19 and the breakthrough infections that are likely to occur among those with complete and partial immunisation, official sources said. The recommendation of the National Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (NTAGI) to establish such a platform has been accepted by the National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration for COVID-19 and the Union Health Ministry, they said.

“The COVID-19 Working Group which is part of NTAGI has strongly recommended to urgently establish a national vaccine tracking platform to determine the impact of the COVID vaccine(s) and the breakthrough infections that are likely to occur among those with complete and partial immunisation,” said Dr N K Arora, the INCLEN Trust chairperson who heads the COVID-19 Working Group. The vaccine tracker will be particularly important to monitor the impact of increasing the dosing schedule of Covishield, he said, as the government on Thursday accepted the working group’s recommendation to extend the gap between the two doses of the Covishield vaccine from 6-8 weeks to 12-16 weeks.

The current data harmonisation work of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and other agencies can be leveraged to set up this facility for review of ground realities on real-time basis, the NTAGI has recommended. The government panel has also recommended that pregnant women may be offered the choice to take any of the COVID-19 vaccines and that lactating women can be inoculated any time after delivery.

The NTAGI has also stated that those having laboratory test proven SARS-CoV-2 illness should defer COVID-19 vaccination for six months after recovery, the sources said. According to the health ministry’s current protocol, vaccine is to be taken four to eight weeks after recovery from COVID-19 infection and pregnant and lactating women are not to be administered the shots.

The NTAGI recommended that all pregnant women visiting for antenatal care (ANC) may be informed about risks and benefits associated with Covishield and Covaxin. Based on the information provided, a pregnant woman may be offered the choice to take any of the vaccines. An educational tool comprising information on risk of COVID-19 infection during pregnancy, benefits associated with the vaccination and rare complications associated with vaccines like thrombosis and thrombocytopenia (with Covishield) may be developed.

In case of individuals who have received the first dose and before completion of the dosing schedule if they test positive for COVID-19, they should wait for 4-8 weeks after clinical recovery from the illness. Also, COVID-19 patients who have been given anti-SARS-CoV-2 monoclonal antibodies or convalescent plasma may defer vaccination for three months from the day of discharge from hospital, the recommendations stated.

Individuals having any other serious illness requiring hospitalisation or ICU care should also wait for 4-8 weeks before getting the vaccine, it added.

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