ISLAMABAD: The opposition parties on Monday lashed out at Prime Minister Imran Khan for skipping the National Assembly session convened to discuss the situation arising out of the coronavirus pandemic in the country and the federal government’s response to it, calling the premier “inept” and the government’s strategy “confusing”.
During the NA session held after a gap of nearly two months due to the pandemic, there were moments when the discussion over the 18th amendment overshadowed the Covid-19 situation, lockdown and the federal government’s response to the economic challenges resulting from it.
The session was convened under the chairmanship of NA Deputy Speaker Qasim Suri as Speaker Asad Qaiser was not able to chair it as he was diagnosed with the virus last week and went into quarantine.
On the 18th amendment, both Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) leader Khawaja Asif were of the view in their speeches that the government was reopening the “fault line”.
Addressing the NA session, the PPP chairman criticised the prime minister, saying he has “failed to lead the country” during the pandemic while the PML-N leader termed the federal government’s strategy to deal with the outbreak “confusing”.
Bilawal reminded Imran that he was the premier of the entire country and “not just the PTI”.
After noticing that the prime minister’s chair was empty, Bilawal said that he was saddened to say that “our prime minister, who is also the country’s health minister, is not present in the session today. He doesn’t think that it is part of his job to brief this house and the people on coronavirus”.
“This isn’t a battle of political statements, this is a part of the prime minister’s job as the leader of the house,” he said, adding that it was his duty to outline the steps the government needed to take to fight the outbreak.
At the start of his speech, he said that the coronavirus had exposed the “true nature of US President Donald Trump, UK PM Boris Johnson and unfortunately, it has also revealed the truth about our prime minister’s ineptitude”.
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He said that it would have been better if PM Imran, who also holds the portfolio of the health ministry, was present in the session and briefed the nation on the current health situation.
Asif, in his speech, slammed the PTI-led government, saying it had no clear policy on the lockdown. “When we had fewer deaths, the entire country was shut down. Now that we are seeing a spike in cases, they are easing the restrictions,” the PML-N leader said. “Centre has no strategy. What is their lockdown strategy and what is a smart lockdown? They should come up with something that less-educated people like me should be able to understand.
“It is either black or white; there is no grey area. Similarly, either it’s a lockdown or not. A complete lockdown at the outset would have gotten the country through the pandemic.”
On comments made by Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi regarding the 18th amendment at the beginning of the session, Asif said that the 18th Constitutional Amendment was passed in 2010, settling the issue of provincial autonomy after a period of 65 years.
In his speech, Qureshi said that health became a provincial subject under the 18th Constitutional Amendment and after that the PPP has remained in power in Sindh and the PML-N in Punjab.
“I spent many years of my youth in PPP which always talked about federation. Today, this party smells of provincial bias,” Qureshi said, adding that it was time for “us as Pakistanis to think and avoid provincial tactics”.
Asif gave importance to the 18th amendment and said: “We might not have lost East Pakistan if we had passed the 18th amendment in the 50s or 60s.”
The PML-N leader advised not to touch the settled issues. “Through consensus we can discuss but not like this.”
He said that the government had yet to discuss the issue of the 18th amendment at the relevant constitutional forum – the Council of Common Interests (CCI).
Bilawal, on the other hand, said that the 18th amendment gave additional resources to the provinces, yet the yearly budget was not enough to battle the pandemic.
He criticised the federal government’s inability to provide provinces the help required to combat the virus and said: “The Centre should’ve stood with the provinces shoulder-to-shoulder.”
The PPP chairman said that as only the Centre could ensure uninterrupted international supply of medical supplies, it should guarantee that the provinces receive them.
“We’re in the midst of a war, and the premier expects us to fight the war on our own … can you imagine Pakistan declaring war and sending its army without guns, bullets, and uniforms,” he said, adding that there would be consequences of fighting the war on our own for all.
He was of the view that Sindh was asking for monetary assistance to spend on health and save peoples’ lives. “It is the Centre’s responsibility and it will have to help the provinces,” he said.
On 18th amendment and the National Finance Commission Award, Bilawal said, “You [Centre] are not in a position to win. I do not want to fight rather help the incumbent government during the pandemic.
“We are ready to work along with the federal government on coronavirus at every forum but the premier should keep an eye on his batting order and keep the people who can talk respectfully till we win the battle against the pandemic.”
Minister for Industries and Production Hammad Azhar said that the virus did not spread in the US, UK and other parts of the world from Taftan border. Bilawal replied, “If the virus did not come from Wuhan, China, in Pakistan, the question arises that how it was dealt at the Taftan border.
“The borders are the responsibility of the federal government. Neither the pilgrims returning from Iran had masks or food nor were their tests conducted before they reached Sukkur. The Centre should have helped the Balochistan government at that time.”
Azhar went on to say that no decision was taken on the basis of political rhetoric and that all countries were going through smart lockdown. “We won’t change our policies after listening to [opposition’s] speeches,” he quipped in his speech while responding to Asif’s remarks.
In his address, FM Qureshi emphasised on the need to restart economic activity in the country, saying that the government has to keep the wheels of the economy running.
“Pakistan is also affected by the pandemic like the rest of the world” he said, adding that the NA session was called considering the importance of parliament and after consultation with all parties.
Qureshi stressed that the coronavirus was undoubtedly the biggest crisis to hit since World War II. “Various measures are being adopted but experts have yet to find a cure for the virus,” he said. “It might take up to 18 months or two years before a vaccine is developed. However, we have to keep the wheels of the economy running.”
At the time, he noted, Pakistan’s testing capacity stood at 100 tests per day. “Now, our capacity is nearly 20,000 tests per day,” he said.
Asif and Bilawal, in their speeches, said that the government had claimed to conduct 50,000 tests every day yet it wasn’t the case.
On the PM’s stimulus package, Bilawal responded to Qureshi that he was happy when the government announced the stimulus package but when he went into its details, it emerged that “the government was not working with good intention”.
He said that he had offered PM Imran and his government to set aside political differences and work together to tackle the pandemic but received flak and verbal abuse from the highest level against his party and the chief minister. “It was so much that a leader of the ruling party went as far as to say that he contracted coronavirus due to the illiteracy of the people of Sindh,” Bilawal said.He revealed that the Sindh government prepared “Sindh Relief Ordinance” but it was not signed. “The Sindh governor should sign the Sindh Relief Ordinance tonight instead of sabotaging it,” he said.
Federal Minister for Communications and Postal Services Murad Saeed questioned the PPP government’s spending on health during Covid-19.
“In 2019, there were 29,000 cases of dog bites yet there is no vaccine. We are criticised when we question where has the money been spent,” he said.
Interestingly, the opposition parties had left the NA session without announcing a formal walkout before Saeed started his speech as it was time to break the fast.
However, the lawmakers were notified that the session would reconvene on Wednesday (tomorrow).