The World Health Organisation has declared COVID-19 (better known as corona virus) a pandemic, with the number of cases outside China increasing 13-fold. Owing to an unprecedented increase in the number of cases globally as well as in the state, the Karnataka Government has included COVID- 19 within the ambit of epidemic diseases and has released the Karnataka Epidemic Diseases, COVID-19 (Corona Virus Disease 2019) Regulations (Regulations) vide notification dated 11 March 2020, under the aegis of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897. These Regulations set out guidelines that spells out the roles and responsibilities of both health officials and the public to mitigate and combat the growing threat of COVID-19. These Regulations will be valid for a period of one year effective from the date of its publication in the official gazette. Though our Ergo on 12 March 2020 briefly touched upon the Regulations, in this update, we have gone into greater detail, covering the key provisions of the Regulations and the impact thereof.
Key Provisions under the Regulations
(a) Obligations on Hospitals: All government and private hospitals are required to:
(i) Have designated ‘flu corners’ for screening suspected COVID-19 cases; and
(ii) Record the travel history of the person who has travelled to a COVID-19 affected country or area in addition to coming into contact with a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19.
Further, a person is required to be kept at home in quarantine for 28 days from the date of exposure if the person has any travel history or has been in contact with a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19 in the last 14 days but is asymptomatic. Where the person shows symptoms, the person is required to be isolated in a hospital and checked for COVID-19 as per established protocols. Hospitals are also required to forward such information to the Office of District Health and Family Welfare of the concerned district immediately.
It is pertinent to note here is that the Karnataka Government (labour department), vide notification dated 5 March 2020, requires employers to mandatorily grant 28 days of paid leave to COVID-19 affected employees. These leaves are in addition to the sick leaves than an employee is entitled to under the Karnataka Shops and Commercial Establishments Act, 1961.
(b) General Obligations: To quell rumours and panic in the state, the Regulations state that no person, institution or organisation shall use any print or electronic media for publishing/ circulating any misinformation regarding COVID-19. Indulging in such activities will be treated as a punishable offence under the Regulations, potentially entailing imprisonment. Interestingly, however, the Regulation states that such person, institution or organisation can do so with the prior permission of the Department of Health and Family Welfare (DHFW). This is likely to be a drafting error given that one cannot possibly obtain prior permission to commit an offence. Incidentally, there was news circulating on the evening of 11 March 2020 that the Karnataka Government has declared COVID-19 as a state epidemic and has ordered the closure of all schools and offices. This was subsequently clarified to be fake news by the Karnataka Health Commissioner, Mr Pankaj Kumar Pandey, in a recorded statement.
(c) Designated Laboratories: All samples of COVID-19 must be collected and tested as per Government of India guidelines and are required to be sent to the laboratories designated for this purpose by the District Nodal Officer of the DHFW. Private laboratories are prohibited from collecting and/or testing such samples.
(d) Obligations on Individuals to Self-Report: Any person with a history of travel in the last 14 days to a country or area affected by COVID-19 must report to the nearest government hospital or call a toll free helpline number - 104 for the DHFW to initiate necessary measure where required. Such persons who do not show any symptoms (cough, fever, difficulty in breathing, etc), are required to isolate themselves at home and are required to cover their mouth and nose with a mask. They are also advised to avoid contact with any other persons including family members for a period of 14 days from the date of their arrival from a COVID-19 affected country or area.
(e) Mandatory Admission and Isolation: Authorised personnel under the Regulations (as set out under (h) below) are permitted to admit and isolate a person if (i) she/he has a history of travel to countries or areas where COVID-19 is endemic and/or where the person has come into contact with an affected person; and (ii) where the said person is symptomatic. Where such person refuses admission or isolation, the officers authorised under the Regulations have been given the power to forcefully admit and isolate such cases for a period of 14 days from the onset of symptoms or till the reports of the lab tests are received or such further period as may be necessary.
(f) Containment Measures: In order to prevent spread of the disease, the District Administration of the concerned district have been given powers to implement various containment measures including but not limited to sealing the concerned geographical area, barring entry and exit of population from the containment area, closure of schools, offices and banning public gatherings, banning vehicular movement in the area, initiating active and passive surveillance of COVID-19 cases, isolation of all suspected cases in hospitals, designating any government / private building as containment units for isolation of suspected cases and adopting such other measures as directed by DHFW to contain the spread of COVID-19.
(g) Penalty: A violation of the Regulations by any person, organisation or institution would be deemed to be an offence committed under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (disobedience to order duly promulgated by a public servant). This could entail a criminal sanction, with the possibility of imprisonment for a term extending from one to six months being imposed as a penalty.
(h) Authorised Personnel: Director, Health and Family Welfare Services, state level Director Medical Education, Deputy Commissioner, District Health Officer, District Surgeons in the districts , Taluka Health Officer in the talukas, Chief Health Officer in BBMP and such other officer as authorised by the DHFW from time to time have been designated as authorised personnel under these Regulations.
The steps outlined in these Regulations are meant to be preventive and facilitate prompt action by the State Government should the situation escalate further.
The number of reported cases in Karnataka has gone up to 1,142 and the Government has already implemented measures in closing schools for children up to standard five. These Regulations are meant to give the Government wider powers (for instance power to forcibly admit and isolate persons, power to close offices, power to ban vehicular movement, etc.) to contain the spread of COVID-19.
Given these Regulations and the revised travel advisory issued by the Government of India on 11 March 2020, we would recommend that employers issue internal advisories asking employees to avoid all non-essential travel – whether domestic or abroad including adopting other preventive measures as more specifically set out in our ERGO dated 5 March 2020.
Vinay Joy (Partner), Srishti Ramkrishnan (Associate) and Luv Mohan Saggi (Associate)