New Delhi: In a bid to increase the Covid-19 vaccination coverage, the Centre on Wednesday allowed private companies to vaccinate their employees at workplaces from April 11.
In a letter to all states/Union territories, Union health secretary Rajesh Bhushan said this was done since a substantial proportion of the 45-plus population are in the organised sector of the economy and work in offices (private or government), or in manufacturing and services. He added that to increase access to vaccines for such people, Covid-19 sessions may be held at workplaces that have 100 or more willing beneficiaries by tagging these workplaces with the existing Covid vaccination centres and asking the states to launch this scheme by Sunday.
This change in the government’s plan comes as the desired target for vaccinations is yet to be achieved. The change of strategy comes amid the raging debate on vaccine availability.
On Wednesday, the Maharashtra government claimed it faced a shortage of vaccines and at present had vaccine doses only for the next three days, and some vaccination centres have to be shut due to this. Maharashtra has the highest number of Covid positive cases in the country.
“Stocks of vaccine in the state and in Mumbai are only for the next three days. Today 14 lakh doses are available, which means there is only three days’ stock. Every week we need 40 lakh doses, that is if we vaccinate five lakh people every day. We requested the Centre to send more vaccines as this is the state with the highest number of cases every day,” said state health minister Rajesh Tope. He said he had told Union health minister Harsh Vardhan about this during a videoconference on Tuesday evening.
However, Dr Harsh Vardhan said: “I have seen statements by public representatives in Maharashtra about the shortage of vaccines. This is nothing but an attempt to divert attention from the Maharashtra government’s repeated failures to control the spread of the pandemic. The inability of the Maharashtra government to act responsibly is beyond comprehension. To spread panic among people is to compound the folly further. Vaccine supplies are monitored on a real-time basis, and state governments are being apprised regularly about it. Allegations about a vaccine shortage are utterly baseless.”
He added: “Throughout last year, as health minister of India, I have been a witness to the misgovernance and utterly casual approach of the Maharashtra government in battling the virus. The lackadaisical attitude of the state government has singularly bogged down the entire country’s efforts to fight the virus. We, in the Central government, have regularly counselled the Maharashtra government, made them available all resources and sent Central teams for help. However, the lack of effort by the state government is now clearly visible and comes to haunt us all. Today, Maharashtra not only has the highest cases and deaths in the country but also has one of the highest test positivity rates in the world! Their testing is not up to the mark and their contact tracing leaves a lot to be desired. The performance of the Maharashtra government in terms of vaccinating healthcare workers and frontline workers is also not great. It is shocking to see how the state government is putting Maharashtrians in danger by letting people escape institutional quarantine mandates. As the state lurched from one crisis to another, it seems the state leadership is happily sleeping at the wheel.”
He said the Maharashtra government must do a lot more to control the pandemic, adding that the Centre will help in all possible ways. The minister also referred to Chhattisgarh, saying the comments by state leaders were intended to spread misinformation and panic about the vaccinations. “Chhattisgarh has seen a disproportionately higher number of deaths in the last 2-3 weeks. Their testing remains heavily dependent on rapid antigen tests, which is not a wise strategy. The state government in fact refused to use Covaxin despite it being given emergency use authorisation by the Drugs Controller of India. Not only this, by its actions, the state government leaders have the dubious distinction of being perhaps the only government in the world to have incited vaccine hesitancy,” Dr Vardhan added.
The minister said many other states also need to bring their healthcare systems up to the mark, mentioning Karnataka, Rajasthan and Gujarat, saying they need to improve the quality of testing. In Punjab, he said, the high case fatality rate must be improved by early identification of those needing hospitalisation. Mask-wearing and social distancing compliance are slack in several states.
The minister also defended the government’s stand of vaccinating only 45-plus people as of now. Health ministry officials had said Tuesday that the vaccine strategy was to cover those who needed it, and not those who want it. However, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi criticised this strategy on Wednesday, saying: “It is ridiculous to debate needs and wants. Every Indian deserves the chance to a safe life.”
India on Wednesday had about 1.16 lakh fresh Covid-19 cases, while 630 deaths were reported in the last 24 hours. Due to rising cases, the Punjab government ordered a night curfew in the state from 9 pm till 5 am and a ban on all political, social, cultural and sports gatherings. A cap was also put on the numbers permitted at weddings, funerals and cremations. Only 50 people can attend indoor functions, and 100 outdoors. In Chhattisgarh, a lockdown has been imposed in Raipur from April 9 to 19.
The Serum Institute of India, that is making the Covishield vaccine in India, has got a legal notice from its partner AstraZeneca over delays in vaccine supplies. India has halted the export of vaccines to other nations in order to first cover its own population.
Serum Institute CEO Adar Poonawala said: “The globe needs this vaccine... We are prioritising the needs of India (but) we are still short of being able to supply every Indian.” He added more companies need to manufacture vaccines in India to meet the demand.