On 30th April, in a hearing on COVID-19 in the country after taking suo moto cognizance of issues related to Oxygen and medicine supply and other policy matters concerning the Coronavirus pandemic, the Supreme Court had noted that the healthcare sector in India has come to a breaking point. Observing that even doctors and healthcare personnel were unable to get beds in hospitals, the Supreme Court noted that the situation is grim.
The court suggested that retired doctors or officials could be re-employed and hostels, temples, churches, and other such places could be converted into COVID care centres to deal with the raging situations. The court also suggested to the Centre to adopt a national immunization model concerning the COVID-19 vaccination programme, observing that poor people will not be able to pay for the vaccines. “National immunization policy” must be followed said Justice D.Y.Chandrachud.
The court had also asked why the centre was not buying 100 percent, of COVID-19 vaccine doses as it is in the best position to determine equity and defray them. Private vaccine manufacturers cannot be allowed to decide which state should get how much, the court noted. The court also noted the matter wherein action had been taken by police or other agencies against people who had sought COVID-19 related help on the internet. The court had dealt with the matter of jurisdiction of High Courts to declare lockdowns. The SC bench advised the high courts to observe restraint on making off-the-cuff remarks.
Moving ahead the Centre on Sunday 9th May told the Supreme Court that its vaccination policy had been framed to ensure equitable distribution, with the limited availability of vaccines, vulnerability, and the fact that vaccinating the entire country was not possible in one go due to the suddenness of the pandemic, “as the prime consideration”. The policy was “just, equitable, non-discriminatory and based upon an intelligible differentiating factor between the two age groups 45 plus and those below”, it said.
The “policy thus, conforms to mandate of Article 14 and Article 21 of the Constitution of India and is made after several rounds of discussions with experts, state government and vaccine manufacturers” said Centre in its affidavit filed before the top court. It also said, “The policy requires no interference by this Hon’ble Court as while dealing with a pandemic of this magnitude, the Executive does have a room for free play in the joints, in larger public interest.”
Under the Accelerated National Covid-19 vaccination strategy which came into action on May 1, vaccine manufacturers would supply 50 percent of their monthly Central Drug Laboratory CDL- released doses to the Centre and would supply the remaining 50 percent doses to “other than Government of India channel” such as state governments, private hospitals, and hospitals of industrial establishments. Under this strategy, vaccinations in the 18-44 years age groups are permitted under the “other than Government of India Channel”. The court had indicated that manufacturers, ensured that the price is uniform for all the states.
It adds that the distribution of vaccines among the states is also based on equitable and rational criteria to eliminate and the possibility of differences in the beginning power of a state having a detrimental impact on residents of other states. “The Central Government by nature of its large vaccination programme, places large purchase orders for vaccines as opposed to the State Government and private hospitals and therefore this reality has some reflection in the prices negotiated”. The price factor “will not impact the ultimate beneficiary namely, the eligible person getting the vaccine since all State Governments have already announced their policy decision that each State will monitor vaccines to its residents, free of cost,” says the affidavit.
“Thus while it is ensured that the two vaccine manufacturers-SII and Bharat Biotech are not unduly enriched out of public money, the citizens are not supposed to make any payment for getting both doses of the vaccine.”
Referring to vaccine shortage and attempts to rope in more global players, the affidavit referred to the “possibility of vaccine pricing decision in India having an inevitable impact on the country’s efforts bringing in more global vaccine manufacturers to the country.” The affidavit also pointed out the limited scope for judicial review in matters like management of the pandemic and said the “Central Government has taken its executive policy decision most scientifically, in consultation with experts in the field, keeping in mind the health and well- being of the citizens as the focus in the context of the unprecedented humanitarian crisis faced by the nation.
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