By LE Desk

New Delhi, May 2: The current vaccination policy would “result in a detriment to the right to public health,” said the Supreme Court as it put the central government in the dock over differential pricing of the vaccines between the Centre and states.

A bench, headed by justice Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud, maintained that “there are several aspects of the vaccine pricing policy adopted by the Central government which require that policy be revisited,” in particular the rationale behind letting the manufacturers determine the vaccine prices for states and other private entities.

“All vaccines, whether in the quantity of 50% purchased by the Central government or the remaining 50%, are to be used for vaccinating citizens. The end use is the same,” noted the bench, adding that to compel the states to negotiate with manufacturers on the ground of promoting competition and making it attractive for new vaccine manufactures will result in a serious detriment to those in the age group of 18 to 44 years, who will be vaccinated by the state governments, the Hindustan Times reported.

The bench, which included justices L Nageswara Rao and S Ravindra Bhat, further underscored that the social strata of this age group comprised persons who are Bahujans or belong to other under privileged and marginalised groups.

The court asserted that vaccinations being provided to citizens constitute a valuable public good and thus, discrimination cannot be made between different classes of citizens who are similarly circumstanced on the ground that while the Centre will carry the burden of providing free vaccines for the 45 years and above population, the state governments will discharge the responsibility of the 18 to 44 age group on such commercial terms as they may negotiate.

“While we are not passing a conclusive determination on the constitutionality of the current policy, the manner in which the current policy has been framed would prima facie result in a detriment to the right to public health which is an integral element of Article 21 (right to life) of the Constitution. Therefore, we believe that the Central government should consider revisiting its current vaccine policy to ensure that it withstands the scrutiny of Articles 14 (equality) and Article 21 of the Constitution,” said the bench, in its order which was released on Sunday evening.

The bench asked the Union government to consider procuring vaccines for all the states at the same price, which will then be liable to lift the allocated quantities, and respond by May 10, the next date of hearing.

In its order, the top court has also directed the Centre and states to ensure that they immediately cease any direct or indirect threats of prosecution and arrest to citizens who air grievances or those that are attempting to help fellow citizens receive medical aid, failing which the court shall resort to contempt proceedings.

Preventing clampdowns on sharing of information on online platforms, it said, is not just in the interest of individuals sharing the information, but the larger democratic structures of our nation.

“Without the ready availability of such information, it is entirely possible that the Covid-19 pandemic may turn into a tragedy worse than what it already is,” noted the bench, as reported by HT.

Clamping down on such information, the order added, “will attract a coercive exercise of jurisdiction by this court”.

Calling the Covid situation in Delhi “heart rending”, the court also directed the Central government to ensure the national capital gets the increased demand of 700 metric ton of medical oxygen per day before the Monday midnight.

It underscored that 490 MT of oxygen was apparently not adequate for Delhi in view of the city government’s repeated demands for more quantity.

The bench rejected a submission of solicitor general Tushar Mehta, who said on behalf of the Centre that no revised projection had been received from the Delhi government nor had it been able to offtake the allocated quantity of oxygen from the supply point due to its own logistical problems.

It further noted that there is no national policy on admissions to hospitals while getting a bed has become one of the biggest challenges being faced by most individuals during the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. “We direct the Central government to frame a policy in this regard, in exercise of its statutory powers under the Disaster Management Act, which will be followed nationally. The presence of such a policy shall ensure that no one in need is turned away from a hospital, due to no fault of their own,” it said.

Till the time a policy is in place, the court said the Centre must issue guidelines on admission to policies, and directed all states and union territories to follow these guidelines.

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