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‘Arbitrary, irrational’: Days before Centre's vaccine policy change, Supreme Court's tough remarks

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New Delhi, June 07: Days before Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday announced free COVID inoculation for all above 18 years from June 21, the Supreme Court had asked the Centre to review its vaccination policy saying it was "prima facie arbitrary and irrational" in allowing states and private hospitals to charge people in the 18-44 age group for the jabs.

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In his address to the nation, Modi said the central government will provide free coronavirus vaccine to states for inoculation of all above the age of 18 from June 21 as the government has decided to buy 75 per cent of jabs from vaccine makers, including 25 per cent of the state quota, and give it for free to states.

The development assumes significance as the central government was posed a slew of searching queries by a bench headed by Justice D Y Chandrachud on liberalised vaccination policy and differential pricing of vaccines for the Centre, states and private hospitals.

The apex court was hearing a suo motu case on COVID-19 management in the country.

Under the two phases of vaccination, frontline healthcare workers and those above 45 years were given free jabs by the Centre and then came the liberalised vaccination policy under which differential pricing policy was introduced and it came under the scrutiny.

Observing that courts cannot be 'silent spectators' when Constitutional rights of citizens are infringed by executive policies, the bench, in its order which was uploaded on June 2, had slammed the vaccination policy, describing it as "prima facie arbitrary and irrational" and ordered its review.

The apex court had also asked the Centre to provide information including as to how Rs 35,000 crore, earmarked for vaccines in the budget, has been spent so far, and to place on record all relevant documents and file notings reflecting its thinking culminating in the policy within two weeks.

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Flagging concerns like differential pricing, the top court had said, "We direct the Union of India (UoI) to undertake a fresh review of its vaccination policy addressing the concerns raised." The policy that the Centre would purchase 50 per cent of jabs and 25 per cent each would be taken by states and private hospitals also saw the change on Monday as the Prime Minister announced that now the Centre would buy 75 per cent of jabs from vaccine makers, including 25 per cent of the state quota and give it for free to states.

"The Union Budget for Financial Year 2021-2022 had earmarked Rs 35,000 crore for procuring vaccines. In light of the Liberalized Vaccination Policy, the Central Government is directed to clarify how these funds have been spent so far and why they cannot be utilized for vaccinating persons aged 18-44 years," the bench, also comprising justices L Nageswara Rao and S Ravindra Bhat, had said.

"Hence, due to the importance of vaccinating individuals in the 18-44 age group, the policy of the Central Government for conducting free vaccination themselves for groups under the first 2 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," the bench had said.

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