Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday announced that India would revert to a system of centralised procurement of vaccines against COVID-19, with free vaccines to be provided for the 18-44 age group as well and with 25% of procurement kept open for the private sector. This system will be operationalised by June 21.
Announcing the decision during a televised broadcast to the nation, Mr. Modi said many chief ministers had “come forward with a demand for reconsideration of the vaccination strategy and for bringing back the system in place before May 1 .” He announced a cap of ₹150 on the amount private hospitals can charge over the cost of purchase of the vaccine from the manufacturer.
He also announced the extension of the free ration distribution scheme for 80 crore beneficiaries under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana till Diwali , in November.
The Prime Minister’s announcement comes a week after the Supreme Court asked for an affidavit from the Centre on how the sum of ₹35,000 crore allocated in the Union Budget for vaccines has been spent so far. The Court sought to know why these funds cannot be used for giving free vaccination for those in the age group of 18 to 44 years, observing that the Centre’s policy of not providing free vaccines to this particular age group was prima facie “arbitrary and irrational.” The affidavit is due on June 15 and the next hearing is on June 30.
The Chief Minister of Odisha had written to chief ministers across the country urging a consensus on central procurement of vaccines, while Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had written to chief ministers of 11 non-NDA States to unite to ask for free vaccines from the Centre.
Expressing grief at the loss of life especially during the massive second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic that has hit India, Mr. Modi said his government had dealt with the challenges of resources on a war footing to deal with a “once in a century” pandemic.
“Never in a 100 years has there been such a pandemic, and this saw an unprecedented demand for medical oxygen across the country. We pressed the government, railways, army, air force, navy and other wings into service to procure medical oxygen and other medicines required in our fight against the COVID19 pandemic,” he said.
At the receiving end of much criticism over vaccine shortages, Prime Minister Modi defended his government’s record and capacity.
“When we were first elected in 2014, we found that vaccine coverage under the universal immunisation programme was around 60% and we quickly launched ‘Mission Indradhanush’ to not only increase coverage but we added other vaccines to improve the health of our children. When COVID-19 hit, our scientists got to work to develop a vaccine to deal with the disease. Government of India set up a vaccine task force in April 2020 itself and provided logistical support, funds and other encouragement to our scientists and manufactures, with the result that by the end of the year we had two “made in India” vaccines. A situation different from before, when it would be decades before vaccines developed abroad could become available in India,” he said.
“We launched the vaccination drive against COVID-19 on January 16 and kept to guidelines provided by WHO and best practices of other countries. We prioritised our healthcare and frontline workers, elderly and those with comorbidities. It doesn’t bear thinking what would have happened in the second wave if our frontline workers had not been vaccinated,” Mr Modi said.
“As corona cases started declining, questions arose about the lack of choice for States and some people questioned why the Central government was deciding everything. Flexibility in lockdown and one-size-does-not-fit-all type arguments were were forwarded,” he said.
As the vaccination progressed from January 16 to April end, India’s vaccination programme was running under the Central government and people were “showing discipline in getting vaccinated when their turn came” he said.
“Amidst this demands for decentralization of vaccination were raised, decision about priority to certain age groups was raised. Many types of pressures were exerted and certain sections of the media houses ran a campaign to this effect as well,” he said. “So, we announced that from May 1, 25% of all procurement for the vaccination programme would be done by State governments. Many tried and came up against many challenges that the Centre had managed to overcome, dealing with manufacturers, pricing etc. Then a few days back many States said that a reverting to the old system was better,” he said.
“We will be reverting to the old system where the Centre can procure upto 75% of the doses of vaccines and it will provide them free to State governments, even for the age group 18-44,” he said. “Those who want to go to private facilities, that too will be allowed, as private institutions can procure 25% of vaccines from manufacturers, but there will be a cap of ₹150 per dose as service charge over the cost of the vaccine,” he said.
He expressed optimism that more vaccine candidates will be available in the country in the future, including an under development nasal vaccine. He added that trials for vaccines for children were also going on in the country. He urged people to spike rumours over vaccines and encourage as many people as possible to take the vaccine.
The battle over vaccine procurement had been raging for the last couple of months, between the Centre and the States. It is left to be seen how State governments view this reversal of policy, much of it laid at their door.