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The Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Information and Broadcasting, Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan, on Tuesday said that the cabinet had approved budget strategy paper for the financial year 2020.

Briefing the media regarding the Federal Cabinet meeting, she said the Advisor on Finance Dr Abdul Hafeez Shaikh, while giving a briefing on the budget strategy paper, said that unprecedented achievements had been made in a relatively short period of time.

The budget strategy paper was presented in the meeting, which was supported by the members, and recommended it essential for the country. Awan said the government priorities in the budget strategy were achieving economic sustainability, reducing inflation, meeting benchmarks agreed with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), reducing overall debt, increasing investment as well as reducing expenditure and taking care of the vulnerable segments of the society, and taking effective measures to deal with the natural calamities.

The advisor, while briefing on the budget strategy paper, stated that despite difficult economic circumstances, the government had set ambitious targets and made considerable progress by pursuing fiscal discipline.

The meeting was also given briefing on GDP growth, inflation, debt servicing, revenue collection and budget deficit for the current fiscal year, and projection for the next fiscal year.

She said that in the briefing of the finance minister, it was told that the government had achieved reasonably well within eight months, and introduced a number of plans and projects to give relief to the masses.

The Cabinet overviewed the amount spent on food security, health, higher education, tourism and other sectors. The advisor said the present government made Rs 5,000 billion as interest payment for the amount borrowed by the previous government.

The cabinet was also informed that there was a 17 percent growth in the revenue and primary balance was reduced considerably. Additionally, Rs 950 billion has been allocated for development spending for the outgoing fiscal year with Rs 700 under the PSDP and Rs 250 billion under the public-private partnership (PPP).

It was informed that due to the bad policies of the previous governments, a long-term programme was adopted for reducing the higher load of utility bills.

She said that it was poor governance and bad policies, which had resulted in gas and electricity crises.

She said there was a gap between power generation, distribution and transmission and the companies should revisit their strategies. She said the PM directed to renegotiate the agreements as the companies should realise the time value of money too.

The cabinet was also given briefing on the power sector, with officials maintaining that there had been improvement in distribution and transmission of electricity.

The meeting was also informed that a long-term programme was also being made for settlement of gas and electricity circular debt. She said that the prime minister wanted the power contracts signed with the power producers by the previous governments renegotiated given the circumstances. The cabinet was briefed in detail on the energy situation of the country and was informed that all areas of energy including production, delivery and distribution had shown improvement.

The prime minister, on the occasion, was apprised about the measures taken to increase exports of the country on which he expressed satisfaction. Awan says Prime Minister Imran Khan will address the nation to take the people into confidence regarding on coronavirus outbreak.

She said the cabinet was apprised of the overall situation relating to coronavirus and the steps taken by National Coordination Committee to deal with it. It was informed that the committee was working in cooperation with the provincial governments to monitor the situation and take steps, which were also being informed to the public on a daily basis.

Prime Minister Imran Khan presided over the federal cabinet meeting via a video link to review the situation arising from coronavirus spread in the country as well as the current political and economic situation of the country.

As a preventive measure against the coronavirus, the cabinet members participated in the meeting through the video link. She said Prime Minister Imran Khan's meeting with eminent religious scholar Tariq Jameel was also part of that process.

She said responsibility has been entrusted to the Ministry of Religious Affairs to engage the religious scholars and ensure their central role in this important national cause.

Awan on Monday said Prime Minister Imran Khan had set up a high level committee headed by the finance minister to safeguard the national economy from any possible impact of economic stress being witnessed globally amid coronavirus threat.

The SAPM said the government was committed to ensuring uninterrupted supply of essential items for public relief. "It is our responsibility to protect the economic interests and livelihood of the people of Pakistan," Dr Firdous said.

Federal Minister for Aviation Ghulam Sarwar Khan said that the cabinet had decided that international flight operations will revert to the original airports, except Gwadar and Turbat from 21st March 2020.

The international operations will remain suspended on Gwadar and Turbat airports. It may be mentioned here that the international flight operations were shifted to three major airports i.e. Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore.

The past few days have been spent in better equipping the remaining international airports to ensure proper screening of the arriving international passengers.

He said all airlines are required to be disinfected as per the best industry practices prior to embarkation of passengers at the point of origin.

The airline shall be required to submit a certificate in this regard to the Pakistan Civil Aviation Authority, failing which the aircraft shall be denied entry into Pakistan.

A similar mandatory condition has also been imposed with respect to domestic flights as well.

All domestic departures at the airports shall be subject to screening of the passengers for the coronavirus before being allowed to board planes. This mandatory screening at domestic departure shall be enforced from 21st March, 2020 with the help of respective federal and/or provincial health authorities.

This step has been taken to ensure that necessary steps are in place to control the spread of coronavirus in the country.

All passengers travelling to Pakistan shall be required to provide certified copies of test results for COVID-19 through RT-PCR conducted during the 24-hour period prior to boarding the flight.

Every test result must include the name and passport numbers of the passenger.

Original test result shall be required at the disembarkation airport in Pakistan.

All airlines are required to comply with this mandatory requirement.

It is reiterated that entry within Pakistan's territorial limits shall not be allowed without the authentic COVID-19 through RT-PCR negative test result for coronavirus.

The condition will remain in place till 4th April, 2020.

The requirement for test result shall be in addition to current requirement of submission of completed health declaration form at the point of disembarkation in Pakistan.

The position will be continuously monitored as per the evolving situation and shall be subject to review at appropriate time. Federal Minister for Religious Affairs and Inter-faith Harmony Noorul Haq Qadri along with chairman of the Council of Islamic Ideology Dr Qibla Ayaz endorsed that observing precautionary measures amid coronavirus outbreak are in accordance with Islamic teachings.

Religious Affairs Minister Qadri, speaking on the occasion, said religious scholars of all schools of thought had agreed to cooperate with the government's decision of limiting religious congregations.

He appealed to the people to say Assalam-o-Alaikum to greet one another and avoid shaking hands and hugging to contain spread of coronavirus.

Noorul Haq said guiding principles of Islamic Sharia should be followed to get rid of the pandemic.

Keeping in view the worldwide risk of coronavirus, it called for immediate postponement of all religious and political gatherings. He said distance among prayer rows in mosques should be enhanced, while cleanliness was strictly observed at ablution centers and toilets.

They also appealed to organise Friday prayer on floors without carpets and Friday sermon should be reduced to Arabic only.They further appealed to postpone marriage parties and other functions to avoid gatherings and limit gatherings at funerals and on other occasions.

She said the cabinet was held on live link to make sure the safety of everyone.

Similarly, she said the Ministry of Information will also devise a mechanism to contact media through some Whatsapp group or website links.

Replying to a question, she said, the opposition should stop point scoring in this difficult time and requested the Nawaz Sharif family to come back to Pakistan.

She also said that the coronavirus outbreak was an international challenge and the opposition should not play politics on it.

Replying to a question about GDP growth, she said that so far progress in terms of growth was as planned, however, the recent crisis of coronavirus has shaken the economies of the world and keeping in view the situation, a committee has been constituted with adviser on finance to come up with new priorities in a couple of weeks.

She said even internationally the economic policies are being reviewed and PM has formed a sub-committee to review, discuss and negotiate with the IMF, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.

She said the epidemic had affected the revenue and economy of all the countries across the globe.

She further said the country's exports had increased by four percent, the economy was improving but with this pandemic the country needed to work further with all the stakeholders to mitigate the impact.

Governor State Bank has given a positive response, she added, while saying the media will be apprised once things will be finalized.

Visa is given for a limited time and within that timeframe, the person has to come back to the country as per visa policy, Awan said, while answering a question.

People went for Umrah were brought back through PIA, similarly, people from Iran, Taftan were brought back to the country and condemning the action was wrong, since Iran government wanted them to go back to Pakistan.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2020