With the number of COVID-19 infected MPs rising to seven, health officials are urging Parliamentarians to immediately self-isolate and get themselves tested if they suspect that they may have contracted the virus or come into contact with someone who has. Kandy District Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) Wasantha Yapa Bandara and State Minister Arundika Fernando [...]


Concern over MPs’ COVID vulnerability: PCR tests and self-isolation recommended


With the number of COVID-19 infected MPs rising to seven, health officials are urging Parliamentarians to immediately self-isolate and get themselves tested if they suspect that they may have contracted the virus or come into contact with someone who has.

PCR tests being carried out in Parliament

Kandy District Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) Wasantha Yapa Bandara and State Minister Arundika Fernando became the latest Parliamentarians to test positive for COVID-19 this week. Many of their close contacts have been identified but none had tested positive for the virus by yesterday.

State Minister Fernando had not attended Parliament on January 19 or 20, when it was last in session and had not been to Parliament in the days afterwards. As such, Parliament officials have determined that he has no close contacts there.

Mr Bandara attended the Parliament session on January 19 and made a speech. He was also in Parliament briefly on January 21, which was a non-session day. Based on CCTV footage, Parliament officials had notified two MPs who had come into contact with Mr Bandara. One of them, SLPP Hambantota District MP Upul Galappatti, tested negative after a PCR test.

Meanwhile, Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi, who tested positive for COVID-19 last week, has been moved to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) of IDH hospital. She had earlier been at an intermediate care facility set up at a hotel in Hikkaduwa before being moved to the Kotelawala Defence University Hospital, and then to IDH.

Minister Wanniarachchi had initially undergone a rapid antigen test last week after experiencing a sore throat. Once the test came back positive, she had self-isolated and undergone a PCR test, which also returned positive for COVID.

The Health Ministry official also clarified that contrary to earlier reports, Minister Wanniarachchi’s husband and private secretary Kanchana Jayaratne had not tested positive for the virus. He and other members of the Minister’s staff are currently under quarantine and have undergone PCR tests. All those whose reports have come back so far, including Mr Jayaratne, are negative, the official added.

SLPP MP Wasantha Yapa Bandara, meanwhile, responding to criticism that he had taken part in public events after he took a PCR test and before the test result came, told the Sunday Times: “I had no symptoms at the time I took the test and have not experienced any up to now. I waited two days for my test results, but they did not come. I eventually went to some limited engagements in my capacity as an MP as I have to serve the people, but I took all necessary precautions.”

He said he voluntarily underwent a PCR test on January 16 as a matter of precaution since he regularly came into contact with many people in his capacity as an MP. the MP insisted.

He said he was only informed of his COVID-19 diagnosis on the night of January 24, eight days after he underwent the PCR test. By that time, he had attended several meetings, gone to Parliament and even taken part in a debate on a private television channel with three other MPs. State Minister of Rural Housing and Construction Indika Anuruddha, along with Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) MPs Chaminda Wijesiri and Hesha Withanage, who had taken part in the same debate, were directed to self-isolate as a result. The State Ministry of Rural Housing and Construction announced on Thursday that Minister Anuruddha’s PCR test had come back negative.

Though Mr Bandara had told the media that he had undergone a PCR test at the Kadugannawa Hospital, an official there denied the claim. “We don’t have facilities to conduct PCR tests here. If any suspected COVID patients come, we direct them to Peradeniya Hospital for testing,” the official said. When queried as to the reply, the SLPP MP acknowledged that he had not done the test at the hospital but had given a sample for testing at the office of the Kadugannawa Medical Officer of Health (MoH). Attempts by the Sunday Times to reach the MoH office to clarify reasons for the delay in the MP’s PCR report were unsuccessful.

Mr Bandara defended his decision to take part in public engagements and other events on the grounds that he was not a close contact of a known COVID patient and had not exhibited symptoms. “I underwent a rapid antigen test after the PCR test came back positive and that returned negative. I am puzzled as to why that is. In any case, more than 30 of my close contacts, including members of my family have undergone PCR tests since and have all tested negative.”

The MP was taken to the Teldeniya Base Hospital but has now been discharged and is in home quarantine.

State Minister Dayasiri Jayasekara, Sri Lanka Muslim Congress Leader Rauff Hakeem, Minister Vasudewa Nanayakkara and State Minister Piyal Nishantha are the other MPs who have tested positive for COVID-19 so far.

MPs who have tested positive so far have been helpful to health authorities in giving them lists of their close contacts so that they could be tracked down and isolated, said Public Health Inspectors’ Union Secretary M. Balasooriya. “For example, State Minister Dayasiri Jayasekara gave us a detailed list of those who had come into contact with him, which was very helpful for us. Even State Minister Arundika Fernando, who most recently tested positive, gave us a detailed list. We appreciate the assistance rendered in this regard.”

Reacting to reports that some MPs were shying away from undergoing PCR tests, Mr Balasooriya urged them not to do so as there was a clear risk to the community due to such conduct. “The best way to fight this virus is to identify those who are infected. We can’t do that if those who may have it don’t come forward to undergo tests,” he pointed out.

Meanwhile, with Parliament due to meet in the second week of February, officials are also looking at taking additional precautions to keep COVID-19 at bay. This includes conducting PCR tests once a week for Parliament staff and inviting MPs to also make use of this facility.

Parliament was also currently negotiating with health authorities to set up a mobile unit to collect samples for PCR testing on a sitting day, a senior official stated.

Forty staffers from Parliament are currently selected at random and subjected to PCR tests each week, the official added.

More than 1400 PCR tests have so far been conducted in Parliament since the first MP tested positive for the virus. Only nine persons connected to Parliament have so far tested positive from these tests, and only five of them are Parliament staff. The other four include security personnel attached to Parliament’s outer perimeter and a gardener who worked at the restaurant outside the Parliament complex.

The official, however, said no MPs would be forced to undergo PCR tests and that it was up to them to decide whether to get tested.


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