As Oppn Tears into Punjab Over 'Vaccine Scam', Will Takebacks be Enough to Save Its Covid Response?

·4-min read

The Vaccine 'Scam', as it has been labelled by the Opposition, blew up in the face of the Congress government in Punjab on Friday as the Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh-led government had to withdraw its order of diverting its vaccine stocks to private hospitals at a marked-up price. The latest order said the earlier decision was "not taken in the right spirit".

This embarrassment only added to the patchy record of Punjab in the fight against Covid with the state having the highest case fatality rate in the country.

The CM’s intervention came only after the Centre earlier in the day sought a report from the Punjab government over reports that the state had diverted 40,000 doses of Covaxin it had procured for Rs 400 last month to private hospitals at a 165% higher price of Rs 1,060, thereby making a profit of Rs 660 on each dose, which translates to over Rs 2.5 crore.

The Union Health Ministry in its letter has termed it a "prima facie violation" of the liberalised Covid-19 vaccination policy of the Centre in which private hospitals are supposed to procure supplies directly from the manufacturers and not from the state government or the Centre. It sought an immediate clarification from Punjab.

It is believed that private hospitals in Punjab administered the vaccines it got from the state government at a cost of Rs 1,550 to the public, thereby depriving people of getting the same dose for free from a Punjab government health facility as the state has been running a free vaccination programme.

The latest order now issued on Friday by the state government, with approval of the Chief Minister, said private hospitals should return forthwith all the vaccine doses available with them. "Those doses which they have utilised as of date should also be returned back, once they get direct supplies from the manufacturers. The amount deposited by the private hospitals in the Vaccine Fund shall be refunded to them," the latest order by Punjab government said.

What had made the matter more bizarre is that the Punjab Health Minister Balbir Singh Sidhu has washed his hands off the matter saying questions should be directed to Punjab Chief Secretary Vimi Mahajan who apparently took the decision as a one-time measure to tide over the shortage of vaccines with private hospitals.

The Shiromani Akali Dal, Aam Aadmi Party and the BJP have torn into the Punjab government on the issue, calling it a scam and alleged that kickbacks have been taken in the matter to help private hospitals.

Punjab has already been under the scanner for being one of the worst affected states by Covid marked by a rapid spread of infections and a high mortality rate.

Punjab in fact has the highest case fatality rate at 2.55%, which is more than double the national average of 1.2%, and 12 districts in Punjab are among the top 20 districts in the country in terms of case fatality rate, government sources in the Centre pointed out to News18.

"Punjab has been at the forefront of complaining of a lack of vaccine supplies for the 18-44 age group but when it did get the supplies late last month, it diverted 40,000 such doses to private hospitals and made a quick buck. People instead are being made to pay Rs 1,550 for these doses at private hospitals instead of getting them for free," a senior central government official said, saying the state had been projecting hence an artificial shortage of vaccines.

Punjab government on May 27 said 86,000 doses for the 45+ age group, and these were sufficient only for a day, while for the 18-45 age group, Punjab had received 4.29 lakh out of the 30 lakh doses ordered while no Covaxin dose had been received by them though advance payment was made for 1.14 lakh doses. The Centre has also been unhappy over Punjab not utilising 250 ventilators sent to it through PMCARES as the state claimed that these were faulty but it was proven wrong.

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