As Covid-19 cases in India rise rapidly amid desperate cries for oxygen in hospitals, the Supreme Court on its own took cognisance of what it called a “national health emergency situation” and asked the Centre to furnish a national plan on bolstering supply of oxygen, medicines, treatment and vaccines. As the surge laid bare the chinks in India's health infrastructure with many patients’ kin unable to find scarce hospital beds, a bench of Chief Justice S A Bobde and Justices L N Rao and S Ravindra Bhat decided to step in and seek an action plan from the Centre.
Noticing that as many as six high courts had taken up proceedings on treatment of Covid-19 patients and passed orders that could affect distribution of precious resources like oxygen and medicines, the bench asked the Centre to respond on three issues - setting up a national body for equitable distribution of these resources, considering important medicines and medical equipment along with oxygen as essential commodities under ESMA, and logistics for seamless inter-state distribution of medicines and oxygen.
The Union home ministry issued an order directing all states/UTs to ensure that no restriction is imposed on the inter-state or intra-state movement of medical oxygen. DMs, deputy commissioners, senior superintendents of police and deputy commissioners of police have been made personally liable for implementation of the directions.
The CJI-led bench said, “Prima facie, we are inclined to take the view that distribution of these essential services and supplies must be done in an even-handed manner according to the advice of health authorities which undoubtedly takes into account relevant factors like severity, susceptibility, the number of people affected and the local availability of resources.
“We expect the central government to place before this court a national plan for dealing with the above services and supplies during the pandemic. In these circumstances, we direct that notices be issued to the Union government, state governments/Union Territories and the parties who appeared to have approached the high courts to show cause why uniform orders be not passed by this court in relation to supply of oxygen and essential drugs, method and manner of vaccination, and declaration of lockdown."
Referring to orders passed by the HCs of Delhi, Bombay, Sikkim, Calcutta, Allahabad and Gujarat, the bench said they had passed certain orders “which may have the effect of accelerating and prioritising the services to a certain set of people and slowing down the availability of these resources to certain other groups whether the groups are local, regional or otherwise”.
The Delhi HC had told the Centre to “beg, borrow or steal” oxygen for supplying to Delhi hospitals. A few days ago, Allahabad HC had ordered the UP government to enforce complete lockdown in five major cities - Lucknow, Prayagraj, Kanpur, Varanasi and Gorakhpur - to contain the spread of Covid-19. The SC had stayed the order on April 20.