Paid vaccination policy for 18-44 age group prima facie arbitrary, says Supreme Court

It seeks data on Centre’s purchase of vaccines.

The Supreme Court has called the Union government’s paid vaccination policy for citizens 18-44 years of age as “prima facie arbitrary and irrational”.

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The court said the Centre’s “Liberalised Vaccination Policy”, which covered the 18-44 age group, expected them to pay through their noses for their jab.

The first two phases of the vaccination drive had the Centre in the driver’s seat. The vaccination was also free of cost. However, the onset of the second wave and expansion of the immunisation drive to cover the 18-44 group saw the Centre give ground and take responsibility for only 50% of vaccine purchase and distribution, leaving the States and private hospitals to buy vaccines at a higher price, it stated.

“The policy of the Central government for conducting free vaccination themselves for groups under the first two phases, and replacing it with paid vaccination by the State/UT Governments and private hospitals for the persons between 18-44 years is, prima facie, arbitrary and irrational,” a Bench led by Justice D.Y. Chandrachud observed in a 32-page order released on Wednesday.

The Bench asked whether the Centre had taken a “means test” to ascertain beforehand whether even 50% of the 18-44 age group could afford to pay for their vaccines.

The digital registration and booking of vaccine slots through CoWIN, coupled with the current scarcity of vaccines, ensured that the rich got vaccinated first, it said.

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To top it all, the “liberalised” vaccine policy did not prioritise people with comorbidities, disabilities or belonging to vulnerable groups within the 18-44 age group. Scarcity of vaccines may also be forcing States to divert the vaccines meant for the 18-44 age group to inoculate those above 45. “Persons between 18-44 years of age have not only been infected by COVID-19, but have also suffered from severe effects of the infection, including prolonged hospitalisation and, in unfortunate cases, death,”it noted.

Series of directions

In a series of directions, the court directed the Centre to place on record a road map of projected availability of vaccines till December 31, 2021. It ordered the Centre to submit all the “relevant documents and file notings reflecting its thinking and culminating in the vaccination policy” along with an affidavit in two weeks. It asked the Centre to come clean on 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.

The Bench sought details on the percentage of population vaccinated (with one dose and both doses). “This shall include data pertaining to the percentage of rural population as well as the percentage of urban population so vaccinated,” it clarified. It asked the government to outline how and when it would vaccinate the remaining population.

The court sought the complete data on the Centre’s purchase history of COVID-19 vaccines till date (Covaxin, Covishield and Sputnik V).

It ordered the government to specify steps being taken to ensure the availability of the drug for mucormycosis.

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