NEW DELHI: The Centre on Monday opposed a petition filed before the Supreme Court seeking priority Covid-19 vaccination for judges, court staff, lawyers and their staff.
Filing an affidavit, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare told the court that it would not be desirable to create a separate class consisting of lawyers and judges as it could be discriminatory towards persons engaged in other trades or professions.
It said the vaccine, which is already being produced beyond the manpower and infrastructural capacity, is also being exported in view of the global pandemic.
A bench of Chief Justice Bobde and Justices AS Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian said that it would consider the plea, seeking inclusion of judges, judicial staff and lawyers in the priority category for the COVID-19 vaccine, on March 18.
During the hearing, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Centre, said the government reply has been filed.
The affidavit said that lawyers and staff who are above 60 years of age or are above 45-year-old with comorbidities are anyway covered by the ongoing vaccination drive.
“It may not be desirable to create a separate class consisting of lawyers and others below 45 years of age discriminating persons engaged in other trade, profession or business and working under similar geographic conditions and circumstances,” the affidavit said.
Senior advocates Harish Salve, appearing for Serum Institute of India, and Mukul Rohatgi, representing Bharat Biotech, said that different High Courts are seeking data as how many vaccines are being produced and when will it be given to all.
Rohatgi said this was a very important matter and they have filed a petition seeking transfer of all cases before the High Courts to the top court.
The bench then said it will take up the transfer petition along with the PIL seeking fixing of priority of judges, lawyers and court staff for COVID-19 vaccine on March 18.
Salve said the Delhi High Court and the Bombay High Court are hearing different petitions and seeking data from them.
Rohatgi said that the Delhi High Court is asking how much vaccine will be produced and who will it be given to.
"Please see that it's a larger issue and needs to be decided once and for all by your lordship", Salve said, as the bench adjourned the matter for further hearing on March 18.
The Centre in its affidavit said: "It may not be desirable to create a separate class consisting of lawyers and others below 45 years of age and discriminating persons engaged in other trade, profession or business and working under similar geographic conditions and circumstances as such a classification would necessarily lead to discrimination."
"As there are several other trade, business or profession who directly deal with the health, help and assist a common-man to provide his day-to-day requirements and are working in a small space with a large number. Thus it may not be appropriate to discriminate them as against a separate class of lawyers as both are doing their respective duties towards the citizens under similar circumstances."
The government said that from the facts it is clear that the classification of citizens is based upon most rational and non-arbitrary criteria and thus any specific classification either based upon the nature of trade, profession or otherwise is neither possible nor advisable.
"It is submitted that the fraternity of lawyers are requesting for being classified as frontline workers. Though the government has tremendous respect for the profession and the discharge of duties by these professionals for and on behalf of citizens of India, those lawyers and other associated staff who are either above 60 years or between the age group of 45 to 59 years and are suffering from very long and almost exhaustive list of co-morbidities would, in any case, be covered by the vaccine drive," it said.
The government said that analyses of COVID-19 deaths in the country reveals that 54 percent of all deaths occurred amongst those above 60 years of age, where those in 50-59 years of age accounted for 24 per cent.
With regard to exporting of vaccines, it said once an epidemic takes the form of pandemic, its management has to be done keeping the entire globe as unit and in most circumstances it is not possible to take either state-specific or country specific approach.
"Hence export of COVID-19 vaccine which facilitated global action to vaccination is important to simultaneously protect the high-risk population in all the countries of the world, thereby breaking the chain of transmission and minimizing chances of import of COVID-19 cases from foreign countries as well as neighbouring countries to India", it said.
The government said that low/middle income countries as well as nations with limited access to pharmaceutical technologies are at debilitating disadvantages in dealing with pandemic and it has allowed only limited export of vaccines while according highest priority to domestic needs.
"Under the circumstances, the produced vaccine which is beyond the manpower and infrastructural facilities available, is exported," it said.
The affidavit further said that the vaccination is the topmost priority of the government and all efforts being made to achieve an objective of 100 percent vaccination in the shortest time possible keeping the available resources in mind and availability of vaccine doses.
The government said that it has taken pro-active measures based upon rational and justifiable policy to start vaccinating the citizenry depending upon their vulnerability to disease either because of the nature of their work like health care workers, frontline workers namely doctors, nurses, other medical and para-medical staff, police, army etc and the vulnerability based upon either age or any co-morbid health situation.
"The decision is purely an executive decision taken in the larger interest of the nation and therefore, may not be the subject matter and judicial review," it said.
On March 4, the Delhi High Court had questioned the Centre over the strict control over class of persons who can be vaccinated and also asked the Centre to explain the reasons behind this.
The HC said the two institutes which have developed the vaccines Covishield and Covaxin have more capacity to provide the vaccines but it seems that their full capacity is not being exploited.
(With PTI Inputs)