His Cabinet colleagues and key staff across the 10 ministries also stayed away from family with ministers in a guest house and officers camped in the ministries
Unknown to many, while the nation was in lockdown at home, the Prime Minister, Cabinet Ministers, senior officials and key staff across the 10 ministries went to the mattresses in the war against COVID-19.
Partly as a health protocol to avoid taking the virus home and partly to be available at a critical time the government’s top heads hunkered down in offices or a guest house and some even cooked for each other.
Lyonchhen who was reluctant and almost uncomfortable to talk about this aspect of the lockdown said he was in the office from day two of the lockdown and still continues to stay there as the unlocking happens.
The first few days there was little sleep for the PM and his team. The first night was spent in the Ministry of Health as the Gelephu case came up.
The PM initially said, “It does not merit any mention as it is for my own convenience and my family’s safety. If I get an infection, I atleast would not like to pass it on to my family. That is all I am doing and it is not for the nation’s interest.”
He said the workload does not matter whether he sleeps here or goes home because he would go home only once his day’s work is finished.
“So on the workload, it is a little convenient to me because I can start working in my Pajamas and as I have breakfast I can have a meeting with my team members. So that way it is convenient but it is for my own convenience,” stressed the PM.
He said he ensured his did his routine exercise as he cannot live without it. The exercises are cycling, gym, free hand exercise and walking around the campus.
On the food aspect he said the office has a small kitchen (in the waiting area downstairs) and he even invited the reporter for a lunch (which was respectfully declined).
The PM said he eats all three meals in the office and in fact is fed more now.
Lyonchhen said he is not that much of an eater anyway but he has been eating more here.
“We cook together whenever we are free, but actually I am not a big fan of big formal meals.”
A PMO official mentioned that the PM liked items like fruits and something quick and healthy.
The PM said in terms of working hours he didn’t restrict himself to any work hours.
“I am on my bed only for the night for four to five hours of sleep. At other times if it is too early people who need to see me do not get up and if it is too late people who need to see me go to bed, so I get to do my personal stuff,” said the PM.
“Other than that, I am engaged publicly and in meetings be it on the weekend and in fact I have no definition of the week now. I really don’t know if its Monday or Sunday or Saturday now. We work through the weekends even otherwise, and in fact I am staying here for my own sake and convenience and nothing more.”
He said he has no plans to head home yet.
Lyonchhen has two daughters with the younger one being a 5-month old baby and his wife (who is also a doctor) is on maternity leave.
The PM said his wife’s family is at home helping her.
The PM is staying in the PMO with around half a dozen key staff who sleep in their offices.
Apart from the Prime Minister, the Health minister Lyonpo Dechen Wangmo has been staying for almost the same length of time at the MoH office in the Royal Bhutan Army camp, Lungtenphu along with other health officials.
The health minister said that the most difficult part of staying away from home was missing her son. Lyonpo had to get a new pair of glasses after they broke as she was so tired that she had fallen asleep on her bed with her glasses on.
The going for the other cabinet ministers has also not been easy staying away from family and home made food as they stay in the Punatsangchu Guest house where they eat in the mess.
Lyonchhen said that a day or two later after the lockdown the ministers all moved into the guest house.
He said from Friday onwards they would see the scenario as inter-district travel will be happening to see if there is any hidden transmission as people go to different districts as in that case a few cases would be popping up from the different districts.
“Of course, to the country and nation unlocking is a merrymaking time and they are going out and visiting families and relatives, but to us we are going through a more and more riskier period to have outbreaks,” said the PM explaining why he and his colleagues were still staying away from home.
He said the lockdown was the easiest and safest and then people were allowed to move around and it was less safe and then people were driving around in public transport and it was a little riskier.
“People are allowed to go around and visit their family members in their cars which is very risky and is happening until today and we are lucky we have had no outbreaks or flu clinic cases and that is why we are allowing people to go to their respective districts now,” said the PM.
“If there are some asymptomatic spreaders, then this would have spread and tomorrow this would have spread to all 20 Dzongkhags. That is our worry more than physical work and these are things that is keeping us awake.”
For now, the skeletal teams in the ministries have mostly dispersed. Lyonchhen said there is a team each working with Lyonpo Namgay Tshering on the financial issues, MoEA Minister Lyonpo Loknath Sharma and there is a big team or rather the whole ministry of Agriculture and Forests with Lyonpo Yeshey Penjor and a few diplomats and the foreign secretary with Lyonpo Dr Tandi Dorji as every ministry would like to have its team.
He said the Lyonpo Ugyen Dorji is working hard on the labour import and export and these days he is overworked facilitating all the exits and designing SOPs for allowing labourers to come in.
The PM said Lyonpo J.B Rai has been working with his team day in and day out making SOPs for opening up schools now and for the 2021 session next year. There is in fact a presentation on Monday.
Lyonchhen said among the people in the ministries there are two groups of people. One is those who are working indoors or in their offices and they can go home and come as there is absolutely no risk.
There are then the active and passive frontline workers and the PM said the ministers are somewhere in between.
“We are a little less risky then the vegetable vendors, Dessups, army and police but little higher risk then people who are sitting on the desk to do their job.”
“Wherever we go we try to maintain some unseen bubble around is and make sure that we don’t meet with strangers and make sure that we don’t go to mix freely with very high risk groups. If we are going to meet very high risk front line people then I may use a face shield and N-95 mask and be very careful with my hand hygiene,” said the PM.
He said while going to meet his taskforce members then he can go with the minimum protocol and a facemask.
In terms of dealing with the enormous stress the PM said, “I actually don’t feel extra pressure or extra stress because the biggest relief we have is a universal consultant as His Majesty is always there. At least the government has a very reliable consultant to fall back to. We get good directions and also we get out of the box advice and command and even if there are dubious issues we can easily refer it to the OGZ and then within no time a very clear cut direction comes.”
“I can imagine the scenario at the palace or Lingkana where it is the end of it and the decision must come straight away in a clear cut fashion from there. I would imagine the situation there to be quite difficult, but for us we do what we can and what we cannot or what we want reference for we take His Majesty’s advice and command,” said the PM.
The PM jokingly said he would like to go into a three-year retreat.
He said that to relax he cannot do without his daily exercise that he has been used to doing for the last few decades which is stretching.
“People may call it Yoga but I don’t call it Yoga. It is routine stretching and at least 30 minutes to 40 minutes of cardio on my gym, track running, cycle, and I must have it three to four times a week otherwise I cannot do without it. I do a little bit of weights but not so much,” said the PM.