This newspaper has always argued against the decentralised procurement of vaccines because a single buyer like the sovereign can better negotiate bulk deals at good prices. The prime minister’s announcement on Monday that the Centre will revert to the earlier policy, buying vaccines and distributing them to the states, is therefore welcome.
That’s the best way forward for the country. Indeed, the Supreme Court (SC) had observed, on June 2, the Centre’s Liberalised Vaccination Policy (LVP), which put the onus of vaccinating those between 18 and 45 years on the states and private hospitals, was prima facie “arbitrary and irrational”. It is unfortunate the Centre chose to ask the states to pick up the tab for these vaccines since the expenses should be well within Rs 50,000 crore. In any case, the exercise was a washout, with the few states that attempted to buy vaccines in the international market meeting with little or no success.
The SC also asked the Union government to submit within two weeks, all relevant documents showing how the LVP was framed as also a roadmap of the inoculations till December. On Monday evening, the government made a start, unveiling the guidelines for the rollout. These say the allocations to the states will be based on several criteria including population, disease burden and the progress of vaccination. While these come across as reasonable yardsticks, it is critical the process of allotment is a transparent one, leaving nothing at all to arbitrariness. The LVP, as we have seen, was not well thought out at all and not in the larger interests of the people.
Therefore, given the acute scarcity of vaccines, it is important that the new policy is implemented without any biases. For instance, a state that has a smaller level of infections—simply because the local administration has been more effective in controlling the pandemic—should not be penalised. Several large states in the country have seen a high number of infections simply because the citizens were indisciplined and the state governments were unable to control the spread. The states will get a heads-up on the number of vaccine doses to be sent to them, so they can plan their distribution strategy accordingly.
They are required to put in public domain information about the supply of vaccines at the district and at the centres, and it is important they do this. The onsite registration facility at all vaccination centres, for individuals and groups, should ease the process considerably, especially where network connections are poor; the Cowin app has had its share of glitches and should not be mandatory.
More than anything else, though, India’s inoculation drive has been hobbled by the scarcity of vaccines. India has administered less than 235 million doses so far in a painfully slow rollout that began in mid-January. The government must not be distracted from its key objective which is to procure a large quantum of vaccines quickly.
While the objective is to have more than two billion doses by December—buoyed by supplies from Serum Institute, Bharat Biotech—it would be helpful to have details of the numbers each month. Leaving a 25% share for the private sector to buy is a good move, but the cap of Rs 150 per dose on the service charge could discourage hospitals from administering doses in large numbers. Given the urgency of the situation, the private sector should have been given the leeway to decide the charges.