Govt has done its best to control COVID-19 spread - Namal Rajapaksa
The Government has done its best to control the spread of COVID-19, Minister of Youth and Sports, Namal Rajapaksa said. While dismissing allegations that the vaccination drive is politicised, he assured that health authorities are free to carry out their duties without interference.
“We don’t see the point in imposing another lockdown, as there is no evidence to suggest that this helps eradicate the virus,” he said. People will be able to reap the benefits of the Port City project in a short span of one to two years, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, he added.
“We have a clear vision to revitalise sports in this country and hope to introduce sweeping changes,” he further said.
Following are excerpts of the interview:
Q: COVID-19 deaths have begun to rise. Though the Government has boasted that the virus spread has been controlled, the Opposition has charged that the exercise has failed?
A: Let’s get one thing straight. This pandemic is not ravaging only Sri Lanka. It is a global phenomenon. What anybody could do is to control it to the best of their ability. To date, no country has found a 100 per cent cure for this illness. So far, only an immunisation drive has been put in place. It is successful in Sri Lanka. The Government has taken all possible measures to control its spread. The public should support the Government in this endeavour.
Q: It is clear that the vaccination drive is politicised. Can you condone this?
A: There are two sides to this argument. People assume so because of what is portrayed by the Media. However, the health authorities have the final say in the vaccination drive. The political authority only coordinates the process and provides infrastructure facilities. I agree there were certain shortcomings. I don’t think the vaccination drive is politicised.
Q: You were also part of the COVID Committee. Was this matter discussed?
A: The President ordered Grama Niladhari divisions to vaccinate people based on the Electoral Register. It was also recommended to inoculate essential workers in MOH areas. We will overcome the shortcomings witnessed in Colombo.
Q: What about the second dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine?
A: The pact signed with India clearly mentions the deadline to provide the second dose of this vaccine, but we are fully aware of the situation in India at present. They are facing practical issues. We hope that once the crisis in India is brought under control, we would be able to receive the promised second dose.
Q: You said mass gatherings are banned, but we saw you attending inaugurations of treatment centres flanked by a horde of people?
A: Youths arrived at such events as volunteers. While following health guidelines, these youths incurred their own expenses for these centres. Even the Opposition Leader, who took part in a demonstration, ultimately contracted the virus. No cases were reported following these events.
Q: Why did the Government fail to impose travel restrictions during the New Year period, when a new strain of the virus was detected?
A: It is really easy to impose a lockdown as urged by the Opposition, but we need to see what countries gained through these moves. No country succeeded 100 per cent through such measures. Australia, India, New Zealand and Maldives imposed such lockdowns, but have they controlled the spread? This is a national challenge for us all. We must not politicise this.
Q: What measures have been taken to prevent the spread of the Indian strain of the virus?
A: This is a challenge. The Navy is tasked with protecting our sea routes. Even the Ministry of Fisheries is monitoring it. Minister Douglas Devananda is keeping close tabs on it.
Q: There are several issues in the health sphere. Would we be able to go on this journey without strengthening them?
A: Yes. We need to discuss this at length. Justice must be served. There is a spate of issues, especially at rural level, and there are many shortcomings at regional hospitals. Some of them don’t even have adequate doctors and nurses.
Q: Basil Rajapaksa, who had played a leading role during the first and second wave of the pandemic, left the country with the emergence of the third wave. You have stepped in to fill the gap. Is he due anytime soon?
A: He will be back for sure. He didn’t leave due to the emergence of the third wave. He left due to personal reasons. Though he is based there, he has not shirked his duty by the Nation. He is constantly monitoring the situation here and coordinating the
various programmes which he had helmed via Zoom.
Q: The Opposition is charging that the Government ratified the controversial Port City Bill amid the pandemic?
A: The Opposition is crestfallen and as they have nothing to show for their efforts, they are now seeing crocodiles even in the teacup. During their regime, they strived to ratify this Bill but failed. We have not forgotten how Sajith, Anura Kumara and Ranil had claimed in the past that the Port City concept is the biggest project with which to develop this country. But, as they could not press ahead with it, they are crying over spilled milk. The Opposition knows very well that if this project succeeds as envisaged by this Government, they will not be able to form a regime for many moons to come, hence the false allegations.
Q: The JVP alleges that by pandering to the dictates of one country, Sri Lanka could become entangled in the economic and political conspiracies of other Nations?
A: The Port City has not been given to one country, but when the Hambantota Port was being given, why did they keep mum. Where were they when the Mattala Airport was being given? This is only an investment. Through this project, we hope to seek investment from Germany, Japan, and India. Even the US is welcome.
Q: Isn’t there an issue as to who would become its residents?
A: Anyone with the requisite qualifications can work at the Port City, but from a political perspective, those who are close to Namal Rajapaksa or Sajith Premadasa will not be able to get jobs there. Only those with qualifications will have access to it.
Q: When will the country benefit from it?
A: If its management committee is able to coordinate its work effectively and efficiently, I feel that within a span of one to two years its benefits could be reaped, despite the COVID-19 pandemic. If not for the pandemic, investors could have been
wooed within six months and already investments in the region of US$ 1 billion have been promised. We cannot give a definite timeframe due to the pandemic. But, within the next five years, this project will become South Asia’s main economic centre.
Q: It is also claimed that after the five-year period the crown would pass on to Namal Rajapaksa?
A: Who said that I wonder? I know for sure that in cartoons it is so.
Q: What I mean is once you take the reins, the real benefits of this Port City project can be reaped. Is that so?
A: This has not been mooted for my benefit. This is for the people of this land. Politicians will not reap the benefits. This is the mindset of the Opposition. This project is helmed by professionals. The true benefits of this project will only be for the masses. This will be proved in the future.
Q: Isn’t there a subject Minister for it?
A: There is a Minister only to submit the necessary recommendations put forth by the Committee to the Cabinet and the Parliament, but he will not be spearheading the Committee.
Q: As the Sports Minister, what is your take on the state of cricket?
A: I have a clear vision with regard to sports and cricket. I think we can go on a long journey in most of the popular sports. We cannot revive cricket by being purely sentimental. We need to revitalise this game with a long-term programme.
Q: Despite this, Bangladeshi fans were not very receptive to most of the new players in our team?
A: The Bangladesh team has improved tremendously in the recent past. Hence, our team looked inexperienced. Bangladesh also tried out newcomers for around five years and now they have a settled side. England also did the same and within four years, they won a World Cup as well. India too had done likewise. Therefore, this is nothing new. We cannot depend on seniors forever.
Q: Are you content with this decision to blood a host of newcomers?
A: The Cricket Committee headed by Aravinda de Silva and the Selection Committee is of the view that newcomers have to be blooded at some stage and that the time is right for it. I as the subject Minister appointed them in the first place and therefore, I must have confidence and trust in what they do. I also feel that they would go about their
work without eroding the trust that I have placed in each of them. They need to play for their country. They must not always hanker after money. There has to be teamwork if victories are to be gained consistently.
Q: We lost to Bangladesh for the first time in history. Do you honestly think that this new team would do any justice to the country?
A: I am not content with defeats, but I am happy to see newcomers being given an opportunity to shine. They also have the responsibility to deliver the goods for their country once they get that chance. This will not happen overnight, but we must give them sufficient time to establish themselves. We must have a secondary level team in place to replace the seniors at any given moment. We intend to launch a five-year system to develop all sports.
Q: The public does not have a favourable opinion with regard to either the conduct or the performance of a player like Kusal Mendis. Doesn’t his inclusion bar another skilled player from entering the national team?
A: I feel the selectors should have the right to select whomever they feel should be in the side. That is why I said the Minister, or the selectors and the SLC cannot take decisions by giving into sentimentality. Such decisions are taken by coaches and selectors in concurrence with each other. They have the total freedom to take such
decisions and we do not intervene in such matters.
Q: There was also criticism directed against the handing over of contracts to the national team?
A: I do not wish to delve into the precise amount of cash being paid to the players. When we fall sick, we pay a certain amount to the doctors and the hospitals for treatment and afterwards we don’t complain about the charges levied, whether it is high or not. It is likewise here. This is a professional fee.
Q: Several people have queried as to how a player like Kusal Mendis could be in the A group and draw a salary applicable to that segment?
A: This question has to be posed to the Committee headed by Aravinda de Silva.
Q: As the subject Minister, you can always intervene?
A: Yes, we can ask. However, those who took such decisions must respond to it professionally. They should explain how the contract system works. Once a report on it is received, we will be able to identify the reasons behind it.
Q: Is it fair to conceal salaries drawn by SLC officials, while exposing those of players?
A: The salaries drawn by all must be revealed. In fact, I had tabled a report to the House with regard to the salaries of all those employed at SLC. Hence, anyone can delve into it.
Q: How was an official letter leaked? What does this say about the institution?
A: I have ordered a probe into this incident. That is because only two people were aware of the contract fees. Hence, one of them had leaked it. I am not going to mention names.
Q: You had heaped praises on SLC president Shammi Silva, against whom a spate of corruption charges had been levelled by the COPE Committee, during the SLC AGM. Most say this was a bad idea?
A: I never heaped praises on Shammi Silva. He was voted in. It is the sports unions that elect them. If you could analyse the COPE reports, those before the past five years also need to be considered. But it is the accountant that has to respond to these charges.
Q: The accounts sheet of the previous office-bearers of the SLC had been ratified after their term of office had expired, but it is alleged that a letter submitted by you had validated their term of office?
A: I have never submitted a letter and it is only just months that had lapsed since I became the subject Minister.
Q: Haven’t you ever submitted such a letter, which had validated accounts sheets sans any dates and times?
A: No. I have not done any of this and I say this with responsibility. I have not exerted any pressure and neither has my ministry.
Q: When Shammi Silva and his team’s term of office had expired, didn’t you extend their stint through a letter?
A: When their term ended, I had to form either an Interim Committee or a Management Committee. To do that, we might have had to wait for advice from the AG. I could not have taken a decision on my own. Then, the AG advised us to form a Management Committee. None of this had a bearing on the AGM.
Q: Didn’t this situation prompt people like Mathivanan and Nishantha Ranatunga to opt out of the AGM, claiming that they cannot place their trust in you?
A: That is their view. If I had interfered with the AGM, then I would have backed Nishantha more than anyone else as alleged by you. He had in fact got incarcerated with my younger brother. He is also a close family friend. Furthermore, he is also the younger brother of Minister Prasanna Ranatunga. If there was any chance for me to support a candidate at this election, then I would have backed Nishantha and not Shammi, but I did not back any candidate. I have decided not to interfere with any sports AGM, because such events have to proceed independently.
Q: But there is this view that ultimately the AGM was won by putting out a one-legged horse?
A: I mentioned earlier that it was independent. There is also a system in place for it and there is no point in criticising it. If anyone doesn’t like it, they must change it. That is why as soon as I took over this Ministry, I said the Sports Act and the AGM protocols have to be revamped. We will undertake this within two years.
Q: Are we up to the mark in terms of sports internationally?
A: I think this is a mindset. We are not of the mindset which says we are either regional or global. When we look at past players, they had a clear vision. Sanath Jayasuriya had the aim of scoring as many runs as possible and Muttiah Muralitharan wanted to take as many wickets as possible. Even Lasith Malinga had a similar vision, but I do not see that vision in today’s players. Not only cricketers, many other sportspersons have got entangled in that South Asian mentality. Therefore, the challenge before me is to take these players out of this mindset and prepare them to take the best in the world.