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Kerala High Court seeks Central Govt response in pleas challenging COVID-19 vaccine policy; won’t pass orders for now

The Kerala High Court on Tuesday sought the response of the Central Government to petitions challenging the Centre’s new COVID-19 vaccination policy in so far as it does not require the Central Government to provide universal immunisation in the country.

The matter was heard by a Bench of Justices Ashok Menon and Murali Purushothaman which issued notice but clarified that no orders will be passed for the time being since the Supreme Court is also seized of the matter.

The case will be heard in the first week of May. Notice has been issued to the Central Government, the National Disaster Management Authority, the Kerala government, Serum Institute of Technology (which manufactures COVISHIELD) and Bharath Biotech (which manufactures Covaxin).

The matter has not been admitted as of yet.

The Court was dealing with two petitions challenging the Liberalised Pricing and Accelerated National COVID -19 Vaccination Strategy, which is slated to take effect on May 1, 2021.

One plea moved by Advocate CP Pramod, the State Secretary of the All India Lawyers Union, contended that the Centre should adhere to the National Vaccination Policy when it comes to vaccine procurement. Accordingly, it was asserted that the Centre should procure all vaccines for the Indian population.

The petitioner also challenged the Centre’s decision to allow the vaccine manufacturers to price the vaccine differently for Central and State governments as being unconstitutional.

Another petition moved by Dr. MK Muneer, who is the Deputy Leader of Opposition, Kerala Legislative Assembly, stated the following:

“(Under the new vaccination policy) dual pricing of vaccines is allowed, and States are forced to contend with private players for purchase of the vaccines in the open market, whilst the Respondent No.1 (UOI) procures the vaccine at a discounted/ subsidised rate … As per the Constitution, both States and the Centre have the same constitutional obligation to protect the health of the citizens. In that regard, there cannot be distinction between State Government and the Central Government.

The present policy violates Articles 14, 19 and 21 of the Constitution of India as well as the National Disaster Management Act and National Disaster Management Plan, Dr Muneer contended.

His petition urged the Court to quash the new vaccination policy “in so far as it permits the Private companies to have three different pricing for the same vaccine to be used for general public” and “in so far as it is discriminatory to 18-45 year olds.”

It was also urged that the Centre be directed to take over the vaccination programme in accordance with the National Disaster Management Plan and that the Central government prescribes a uniform price for COVID vaccines for both the Central government and State governments.

Currently, COVID vaccines are available only for those above the age of 45. It is being provided by Central government.

From May 1, COVID vaccination will be open to those above 18 years of age.

However, the Centre has left it to the States and private hospitals to procure vaccines from the manufacturers decide the prices.

The benefit of Central government vaccination scheme will continue to be limited to those above 45.

Advocate Haris Beeran, appearing for Dr Muneer, highlighted this aspect.

“What we need as urgent measure is from May 1, those between age group 18 to 45 are going to be vaccinated. There is a considerable deviation from earlier policy. There are no free vaccines given to States. States will have to buy at an exorbitant price… (it is) arbitrary,” he said.

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