The Centre Wednesday told the Delhi High Court that the decision for COVID-19 vaccination is based on vulnerability of citizens to the disease and is not profession wise and the government is sensitive to the needs of the country. The Centre made the submission in response to a PIL initiated by the high court to examine the demand to declare all people associated with the judicial functioning, including judges, court staff and lawyers, as frontline workers so that they could receive COVID-19 vaccination on priority and without limitations of their age or physical condition.
A bench of Justices Vipin Sanghi and Rekha Palli said it hopes that the government is sensitive to the needs of citizens and the country and due to the pandemic courts functioning has also taken a huge hit. Judiciary is an important wing and one of the three pillars of the state. To compare it with others is not correct. Its functioning is getting hampered. Nobody can deny that efficiency of cases has taken a huge hit. Hundreds and thousands of people congregate here daily and everyday different people are coming. Risk of exposure is there, the bench said.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, representing the Centre, said the government is very sensitive to the needs of the citizens which would be clear from their affidavit filed in the matter and India is way ahead from other countries in terms of vaccination. He clarified that he was not trying to compare one profession with the other and executive should not and is not doing it.
Out of the three wings, the Central government has taken this decision of classification on the basis of age, vulnerability and co-morbidity. Even the executive and legislature are not entitiled for vaccine right now unless they are above 60 years of age or between the age of 45 to 59 years with comorbidities, the law officer submitted. He added that rather than going by profession, the government is starting with vulnerability to COVID-19 infection.
He said the government has prioritised COVID-19 vaccination based on certain fundamental, basic principles and lawyers above 60 years of age or between 45 to 59 years with co-morbidities are already covered under the current vaccine policy. Even all doctors are not included presently. Only those doctors or health workers potentially or directly exposed to COVID-19 patients are covered under the current policy, Mehta said, adding that eventually everyone under the age of 45 years will also be covered.
He said the classification is not only in India and it is world over and added even he is not covered for vaccination currently as he is less than 60 years and is not having any co-morbidity. The high court was informed by Mehta and senior advocate Neeraj Kishan Kaul, appearing for Bharat Biotech, that a similar plea is filed in the Supreme Court which is likely to take it up on March 15 and requested the high court to take up the matter after that.
As the affidavits of the Centre, filed through Central government standing counsel Anil Soni, and Bharat Biotech were not on record, the court asked the counsel to take steps to place them on record and listed the matter for further hearing on March 19. Senior advocate Vikas Singh, representing the coordination committee of all bar associations of district courts here, said lawyers are frontline workers because they work in crowded places and the Centre has completely forgotten this in its affidavit.
During the hearing, senior advocate Rakesh K Khanna suggested that in light of the inspection carried out by Delhi government in dispensaries in courts here, vaccination facilities could be created so that lawyers, judges and court staff, who are above 60 years or between the age of 45 to 59 years with co-morbidities, be vaccinated. To this, Mehta said that this issue would be addressed administratively with the secretary of Ministry of Health and officials of Delhi government.
Advocate Hitesh Jain, representing Serum Institute of India, said they are manufacturing 60 million doses every month and 51 million has been allocated for the government and supplies outside India. The Centre, in its affidavit, has said that in order to achieve the first objective of protecting India's healthcare and pandemic response system, NEGVAC has prioritise healthcare workers, front line workers (personnel for state and central police department, armed forces, home guard and civil defence organization including disaster management volunteers, municipal workers, poll officers in election bound states), persons aged 60 years and above and those aged between 45 to 59 years with identified 20 co-morbidities for COVID-19 vaccination.
National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration for COVID-19 (NEGVAC) has been established by the government to provide guidance on all aspects of COVID-19 vaccination. The high court had on March 4 asked the Centre to explain the rationale behind keeping strict control over class of persons who can be vaccinated against COVID-19 currently as under the present system those above the age of 60 years or with comorbidities can receive vaccination.
It had said the two institutes which have developed the vaccines COVISHIELD and COVAXIN — Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech — have more capacity to provide the vaccines but it seems that their full capacity is not being exploited.