In an address to the nation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that the Centre would provide vaccines free of charge to all above 18 from June 21 and would take back control of vaccination from states, reversing a policy change that was enforced just about a month ago.
"The Centre is taking back total control of vaccination now. It will take over the 25 per cent doses assigned to states and this will be implemented in the next two weeks. From June 21 (International Day of Yoga), the Centre will provide free vaccines to states," PM Modi announced and parried criticism of his government's policy and a slow rollout that has covered less than five per cent of the population.
"Whether it is the poor, the lower middle class, the middle class, or the upper middle class, under the central government programme, everyone will get free vaccines," the Prime Minister said. The Centre will buy 75 per cent of the vaccines produced by companies, including 25 per cent assigned to states. Private hospitals will continue to buy the remaining 25 per cent and inoculate those willing to pay for their jabs. They can't, however, charge more than Rs 150 as service charge per dose over the fixed price of the vaccine, the PM said.
Under the earlier policy, the central government gave free vaccines to those above 45 and frontline workers, and left state governments and private hospitals to administer doses at a cost to people between 18 and 44. States were also providing free shots to this group. In a speech that took on critics, PM Modi put out an emphatic defence of his vaccine policy, which has lately come under attack by states, opposition parties and the Supreme Court.
States had complained about having to buy doses at higher prices compared to what the Centre paid vaccine makers. Chief Ministers like Arvind Kejriwal (Delhi) had demanded that the Centre buy doses and provide them to states free of cost. The Prime Minister sought to point out that the vaccine drive was decentralized because states had complained about disparities. "Many states demanded vaccinations to be decentralized. Some voices even questioned prioritising certain age groups, including the elderly," he said.
India's vaccine policy had been a success because of "good intentions and clear policy", PM Modi asserted, comparing his government's performance on that score to its predecessors. "In 2014, India had 60% vaccine coverage, we managed to take it past 90% during our term," PM Modi said. He said India's fight against the second wave of the coronavirus was on. "Against an unseen, shapeshifting enemy, our biggest weapon is maintaining Covid protocol like masks and distancing. Vaccines are our shield," he said.
"If we did not have a made-in-India vaccine, can you imagine what would have happened in a country like India?" He pointed out that earlier, India would take decades to get vaccines from abroad. "The pace at which it was going, it would take 40 years for 100 per cent coverage," he said.
Seven companies are producing various vaccines against the coronavirus and the trial of three more vaccines is at an advanced stage, the Prime Minister explained, addressing concerns that India may fall short of doses for its goal of vaccinating all by the year-end.
The process of buying vaccines from companies of other countries had also been fast-tracked. PM Modi said research is ongoing on a nasal spray vaccine which, if successful, can significantly boost India's vaccination drive. The Supreme Court last week called the policy of free vaccines for people who are above 45 and paid doses for the 18-44 group "arbitrary and irrational". The court asked the centre to review its policy and "place on record a roadmap of projected availability of vaccines till 31 December 2021". The Centre was asked to furnish complete details on its vaccination policy, including all documents and file notings, and also clarify how £3.5 billion announced in the Budget was used in procuring vaccines.