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New Delhi: The Election Commission on Monday asked the government to expedite the COVID-19 vaccination programme in five poll-bound states in a meeting with the Union health secretary, amid indications that polling may be held in time.
Separately, the Union health ministry issued a statement later in the day, saying the Centre has reviewed public health response measures and vaccination status with the poll-bound states of Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Goa, Punjab and Manipur.
The ministry has advised ramping up vaccination of all eligible population through a district-wise weekly plan with daily review, according to the statement.
During its meeting with Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan, the commission noted that the percentage of those administered the first dose of coronavirus vaccine was still less in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Manipur, while it was nearing 100 per cent in Uttarakhand and Goa.
The poll panel also asked the top health official to expedite administering of second dose to those eligible in these five states, highly-placed sources said.
The health ministry statement said testing is to be “exponentially accelerated” to curb sudden surge of COVID-19 cases.
“While Uttarakhand and Goa have reported vaccination coverage for the first and second doses higher than the national average, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Manipur have COVID-19 vaccination coverage numbers below the national average,” it said.
The states, the statement said, have been advised to speedily ramp up COVID-19 vaccination of all eligible population for the first dose and ensure that those who were due for the second dose are administered the dose.
District-wise weekly vaccination implementation plans are required to be drawn up for this purpose, the five states were told.
State authorities have been advised to review the implementation status on a daily basis, the statement said.
The poll-bound states have been also advised to exponentially increase testing to ensure that infected cases are identified promptly for timely initiation of public health response measures, and to ensure there is no sudden upsurge in numbers due to low testing.
State authorities have been strongly advised to ensure that recommended COVID-appropriate behaviour is strictly followed and adequate measures are undertaken for their effective enforcement, the health ministry said.
In a separate meeting with enforcement agencies and central forces, the Election Commission (EC) asked the top brass of the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) to check the influence of drugs in elections.
The poll panel pressed upon top officials of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), the Border Security Force (BSF) and the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) for maintaining strict vigil on international borders some of the poll-going states share.
Sources aware of the meetings said Health Secretary Bhushan briefed the poll panel for nearly an hour on the COVID-19 situation in the country, especially in poll-bound Uttarakhand, Manipur, Goa, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh.
The issue of spread of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus was also discussed.
The commission assessed the situation based on statistics provided by the health ministry, a functionary said.
The health secretary also briefed the EC about the COVID-19 protocols and home ministry guidelines issued in the recent past to check the spread of the virus.
During the interaction with officials of the NCB, the ITBP, the SSB and the BSF, the poll panel asked the Narcotics Control Bureau to ensure drugs do not influence polls.
The commission “in particular” referred to Punjab and Goa with regard to drug smuggling, the sources said.
The terms of Goa, Punjab, Uttarakhand and Manipur legislative assemblies are ending on different dates in March next year while the Uttar Pradesh assembly’s term will end in May.
The EC is expected to announce election dates next month.
On Tuesday, the chief election commissioner (CEC) and fellow election commissioners are scheduled to visit Uttar Pradesh to take stock of the poll preparedness in the state.
An Allahabad high court bench of Justice Shekhar Yadav had on Thursday last urged the government and the poll panel to consider postponing the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections for a month or two and banning all political rallies amid the fears of an impending third wave of COVID-19.
When asked about the observation, CEC Sushil Chandra had said in Dehradun on Friday that the EC would be visiting Uttar Pradesh soon and “an appropriate decision as required by the situation will be taken after we review it.”
The commission has already visited Punjab, Goa and Uttarakhand as part of its pre-poll stock-taking exercise.