The Supreme Court observed that the Centre should consider revisiting its vaccine policy since differential pricing of vaccines for the Centre and the States would "result in a detriment to the right to public health." The Centre procuring vaccines and negotiating prices with vaccine manufacturers would be a rational method to proceed in a manner consistent with the right to life, the three-judge bench led by Justice DY Chandrachud added.
The Supreme Court on April 30 had questioned the Centre on its vaccine policy, vaccine procurement and pricing, and methodology behind oxygen allocation to states.
Flagging the issue of differential pricing, the bench also comprising Justices L Nageswar Rao and S Ravindra Bhat, had asked the Centre to consider following its national immunization program wherein vaccine procurement can be centralized, whereas the distribution can be decentralized?
In its order, released late Sunday night, the Supreme Court said several aspects of the Centre's vaccine pricing policy needed to be revisited. The Centre particularly needs to revisit its rationale which allows vaccine manufacturers to determine vaccine prices for the Centre, States and other private entities.
The top court's order issuing interim directions to the Centre and the State came on the heels of its suo motu matter on issues arising from the second COVID wave.
Differential pricing discriminatory to marginalized section of the society
Compelling state governments to negotiate with manufacturers in order to foster competition and making it attractive for new vaccine manufacturers would be detrimental to those who belong to the 18-44 years age group.
State finances and their ability to negotiate with vaccine manufacturers would determine whether those in the age group of 18-44 years would get vaccines for free or at a subsidized rate. Those in the age group of 18-44 years also include Bahujans or others who belong to other underprivileged and marginalized groups. They may not have the ability to pay," the order noted.
The Centre had submitted that it would inoculate those above 45 years of age, whereas the States are responsible to vaccinate those between the 18–44 years. The vaccine manufacturers had disclosed that vaccines would be sold at different rates to the Centre, 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," the top court added.
Differential pricing would "create disparity across the nation", the court said. " The vaccinations being provided to citizens constitute a valuable public good. Discrimination cannot be made between different classes of who are similarly circumstanced…," the order further read.
The situation in Delhi heart-rending
The top court directed the Centre to collaborate with the states to create a buffer stock of oxygen that can be used during emergencies and ensures that supply lines continue to function even in unforeseen circumstances. The Centre has to comply with this direction by May 4.
The location of the emergency stocks shall be decentralized so as to be immediately available if the normal supply chain is disrupted to any hospital for any reason," the court added. "The replenishment of the emergency stocks will also be monitored on a real-time basis through the virtual control room in active consultation with each state/UT. This is in addition to the day-to-day allocations," the court ruled.
The top court took note of the heart-rending situation in the national capital and directed the Centre to remedy it forthwith. Recriminations between the Centre and the State government in Delhi "can furnish no solace to citizens whose lives depend on a thin thread of oxygen being available."
The Centre and Delhi have been in a constant dispute over oxygen allocation and its supply before the Delhi High Court and the Supreme Court. "In the battle of shifting the responsibility of supplying/offtaking of oxygen, lives of citizens cannot be put in jeopardy. The protection of the lives of citizens is paramount in times of a national crisis and the responsibility falls on both the Central Government and the GNCTD to cooperate with each other to ensure that all possible measures are taken to resolve the situation," the supreme court's order read.
National Policy on Hospital admissions
During the hearings on this issue, the Supreme Court was informed about hospitals in several states turning patients away on bureaucratic policies. The top court noted that "gaining admission into a hospital with a bed is one of the biggest challenges being faced by most individuals during this second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic."
"Left to their own devices, citizens have had to suffer immeasurable hardship. Different states and local authorities follow their own protocols. Differing standards for admission in different hospitals across the nation leads to chaos and uncertainty. The situation cannot brook any delay," the top court ruled directing the Center to formulate a national policy on hospital admissions.
"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," the three-judge bench noted.
Consider lockdown to arrest second covid wave
The top court urged the Center to consider imposing a lockdown to curb the virus in the second wave in the interest of public welfare. The court further urged the Centre to consider "imposing a ban on mass gatherings and super spreader events."
Cognizant of the socio-economic impact of a lockdown, specifically, on the marginalized communities, the supreme court said arrangements must be made beforehand to cater to the needs of these communities in the event the Centre is considering the imposition of a lockdown.
Healthcare professionals acting beyond call of duty
Appreciating the role of health care workers during this pandemic, the supreme court said, "It is absolutely necessary to take urgent steps for their well-being to ensure that our appreciation for their tremendous efforts is not reduced to rhetoric."
Commend the outstanding work of all healthcare professionals (doctors, nurses, healthcare workers, laboratory technicians, ward staff, ambulance drivers, crematorium workers etc.) during this crisis, the top court noted its appreciation saying, "They have truly gone beyond their call of duty and toiled day in and day out, relentlessly without rest amidst great challenges."
"We also do not hesitate to note that the treatment meted out to these public healthcare professional during this COVID-19 pandemic has sometimes been less than ideal," the court said highlighting issues of concern that need to be addressed.
Sharing information widely an important tool in combating public tragedies
The court expressed its "deep distress" on how individuals seeking help on online platforms were being targeted by alleging that the information posted by them is false and has only been posted in social media to create panic, defame the administration or damage the "national image".
"In these trying times, those desperately seeking help for their loved ones on these platforms should not have their misery compounded through the actions of the State and its instrumentalities. Further, there are two more crucial reasons why such a clampdown on information sharing must be absolutely stopped immediately," the order read.
The top court's reiteration comes provides relief in light of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath's direction asking officials to take action under the National Security Act by seizing the property of those individuals who spread "rumours" and propaganda on the lack of health infrastructure and try to "spoil the atmosphere".
It is important to share information to combat public tragedies and create a "collective public memory" the court said.
Preventing clampdowns 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," the court noted.