Monday, October 18, 2021

Vax policy ‘arbitrary and irrational’, show roadmap till Dec 31: SC to govt

In what could fuel criticism of the Centre’s Covid-19 vaccination policy, the Supreme Court on Wednesday termed non-extension of free vaccination to the 18-44 age group as “prima facie arbitrary and irrational” and asked why budgetary allocation of Rs 35,000 crore for vaccine could not be used to inoculate this group free of cost.
“Due to the importance of vaccinating individuals in the 18-44 age group, the policy of the central government for conducting free vaccination for groups under the first two phases (healthcare and frontline workers and those above 45 years), and replacing it with paid vaccination by state and UT governments and private hospitals for those between 18-44 years is, prima facie, arbitrary and irrational,” a bench of Justices D Y Chandrachud, L N Rao and S R Bhat said in its 32-page order. The order was uploaded on the SC website on Wednesday. With the Centre asserting that all states have decided to vaccinate their populations free of cost, the bench asked each state and UT to file affidavits in two weeks declaring whether they intended to carry out free vaccination of people irrespective of age. The SC also sought data on the percentage of rural population vaccinated so far as it apprehended that vaccination was urban-centric.

Importantly, the court took note of black fungus infection among people who recovered from Covid-19 and asked the Centre to furnish details of steps being taken to ensure drug availability for its treatment.
The higher incidence of Covid-19 in the 18-44 age group, which had more or less escaped the first wave of the pandemic, in the second wave and the increasing trend of co-morbidities in this cohort shaped the judicial thinking as the bench wondered why this category should be treated differently from other groups which were vaccinated free of cost.
SC asks Centre to file response affidavit within two weeks

Referring to the earmarking of Rs 35,000 crore for vaccine procurement in the Budget for 2021-22, the bench asked, “In light of the liberalised vaccination policy, the central government is directed to clarify how these funds have been spent so far and why they cannot be utilised for vaccinating people aged18-44 years.”

The SC asked the Centre to file its response affidavit on these and a host of other issues, including the impracticality of mandatory registration on the CoWin portal given the sharp digital divide between urban and rural India, within two weeks. Importantly, it asked the government to annex relevant documents, including file notings, to reflect the thinking that went into framing of the vaccine policy as well as differential pricing of vaccines for the Centre, states and private hospitals.

On the assertion of solicitor general Tushar Mehta that the Centre expected to vaccinate all above 18 years, an estimated population of 94 crores, by the end of the year, the bench asked the Centre “to place on record a roadmap of projected availability of vaccines till December 31, 2021; the preparedness with respect to specific needs of children in the event of a third wave of the pandemic in terms of medical infrastructure, vaccination trials and regulatory approval, and compatible drugs”.

Taking note of global tenders floated by certain states and municipal corporations for procurement of vaccines from foreign sources directly, the bench asked whether the Centre’s policy permitted such a move. Most foreign vaccine manufacturers have declined to deal with states and civic bodies for want of a sovereign guarantee.

The court also took note of amici curiae’s submission and asked the Centre to give details of crematorium workers, treated as frontline workers, vaccinated in Phase 1. “A targeted drive can be conducted for vaccination of the remaining crematorium workers,” the bench suggested.

It also drew the Centre’s attention to some states and UTs diverting vaccines (procured by them at a higher price than the Centre) allocated for the 18-44 age group to vaccinate those above 45 due to a shortage of vaccine supply by the Centre.


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