Covid-19 pandemic: Night curfews return as Omicron scare grips India

Several states imposed tougher restrictions on Friday as the Omicron tally touched 358.

Maharashtra banned the assembly of more than five people in public places between 9 pm and 6 am, while poll-bound Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Haryana both imposed a night curfew — 11 pm to 5 am — from Saturday.

This comes a day after the Madhya Pradesh government imposed similar mobility curbs.

The Odisha government also imposed fresh restrictions on Friday on celebration of Christmas and New Year’s Day, while Gujarat extended the duration of night curfew in eight cities by two hours. New curfew timings are 11 pm to 5 am, instead of 1 am to 5 am, according to a notification issued by the state home department.

In Maharashtra, restaurants, cinema halls, theatres, and gyms will continue to operate at 50 per cent capacity, while not more than 100 guests will be allowed at weddings in enclosed spaces like banquet/marriage halls and 250 guests in open spaces.

Similarly for social, political or religious functions, the total number of attendees should not exceed 100 if held in enclosed space and 250 if held in open spaces. Haryana restricted the maximum number of people at indoor and outdoor events to 200 and 300 people, respectively.

In the face of rising cases, the Union health ministry spelled out its readiness to handle a potential third wave, saying the country has 1.8 million isolation beds now and a capacity of over 18,000 tonnes of medical oxygen per day.

Maharashtra now leads the pack with 88 Omicron cases, with Delhi (67) close on its heels. Telangana (38) and Tamil Nadu (34) follow.

UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath presided over a review meeting on Friday, and the state decided to put curbs on social events like weddings (restricted to 200 people), intensify police patrolling to ensure compliance with Covid-appropriate behaviour, and upgrade vigilance at air, bus and railway terminals for passengers arriving in the state.

Responding to media queries on whether the health ministry would ask for a ban on public rallies ahead of elections, or recommend pushing back of election dates, Union Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan said all states have been advised to implement Covid-appropriate behaviour and a template has been shared with states on December 21.

The Centre, however, asked the private health care sector to be “ready” and do audits to review the availability of essential drugs, beds, medical oxygen etc.

After Tamil Nadu reported 33 new Omicron cases in a single day, Chief Minister M K Stalin called for an urgent meeting of top officials and the state is likely to soon come out with stringent restrictions to tackle the spread of Omicron further. The state is also considering testing all the international travellers landing in its airports.

Health Secretary J Radhakrishnan said around 26 of the newly detected cases are in Chennai, making the capital city the most vulnerable. Cases are expected to rise in the state as 82 suspect samples have been sent for genome sequencing.

The Delhi government is focusing on ramping up health infra — institutional bed capacity to handle 100,000 patients and test 300,000 samples a day.

The Union Health Ministry on Friday said that nationally 1.8 million isolation beds are available. Bhushan said 494,314 beds are oxygen-supported, while 139,300 ICU beds are available across the country. About 5 per cent of the ICU beds are paediatric beds (24,057) and 4 per cent of non-ICU beds are available for children.

Bhushan said, “About 50 per cent funds of the Emergency Covid Response Package-2 — announced by the Centre in August (of Rs 23,123 crore) — have been released to the states already. States are readying another 96,913 oxygen-supported beds and 20,475 ICU beds using these funds. Another 9,574 paediatric ICU beds will be added using the funds.”

He added that during the first wave (September 2020), the peak demand for medical oxygen in a day was 1000 tonnes, which went up to 10,000 tonnes a day during the second wave in May 2021. This demand was met by the Centre and states working together, he said. “Today we have created a capacity of 18,836 tonnes of medical oxygen per day. That’s the kind of ramp-up we have done since the second wave.”

As for beds, experts have indicated that an Omicron-led third wave is unlikely to see active daily cases as high as the second wave when the population was vaccine-naïve. In May, active cases had touched 3.75 million.

There are 20 districts in the country where case positivity rate is above 5 per cent but less than 10 per cent, the health ministry said. Only 2 districts (in Mizoram) have more than 10 per cent case positivity in India.

Interestingly, of the 183 Omicron cases analysed, 61 per cent were male, and 91 per cent people were fully vaccinated. About 73 per cent of Omicron cases in India have foreign travel history.