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States deny asking GoI for policy to buy jabs directly

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Several states have clarified to ET that they did not request the Union government to allow them to procure Covid-19 vaccines, following Thursday’s statement by Niti Aayog member (health) Dr VK Paul that the Centre had “empowered states” to try procuring jabs on their own at their “explicit requests”.

ET spoke to ministers and health ministry officials from Chhattisgarh, Punjab, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Telangana. While some chief ministers had written to the prime minister earlier seeking flexibility in the vaccination policy, those requests had focused on expanding the Covid-19 immunisation drive.

Chhattisgarh health minister TS Singh Deo said that his state had not asked to be allowed to procure vaccines. “We were saying from day 1 that there should be only one agency, the GoI, to purchase the vaccines. I don’t know any other state that wanted to buy on its own,” he said, adding that even if a state had requested for it, the Centre should not have blindly followed such advice.

Vikas Garg, Punjab’s nodal officer for vaccination, also told ET the state had never approached the Centre with such a request. “It was a central directive, that they will allocate the quota and then we will have to deposit the money with the two (domestic) manufacturers and then they will give us the vaccine,” said Garg.

In Kerala, the chief minister’s office said the state’s stand has been that the Centre should procure the vaccines and pass it on to the state.

‘Futile Exercise’

Similarly, Pratyaya Amrit, Bihar’s additional chief secretary (health), where a BJP-JDU alliance is in power, denied that the state had asked for directly buying doses. “As far as Bihar is concerned, we had never made such a request. That’s perhaps why we never thought of going for a global tender either,” said Amrit, adding that the drive was progressing smoothly.

Dr Santosh Shukla, state immunisation officer of Madhya Pradesh, told ET that while the state had been the first in the country to order vaccines from domestic manufacturers as soon as the new policy was announced and the first to get them, there had been no request made to the Union government before that. “Vaccine procurement was not in the purview of states before that. But some states must have made such a request. We didn’t,” said Shukla, additional director (health).

A senior officer involved in the vaccination drive in Telangana also confirmed to ET that no formal proposal was sent to the Centre requesting for a liberal vaccination policy. “Only recently (May 11) the state cabinet took a decision to float global tenders to buy vaccines. We are, however, not very hopeful that this exercise will yield any result,” he said, requesting anonymity.

Paul, who is also the chair of the National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration for Covid-19 (NEGVAC), said on Thursday, “GoI has merely enabled states to try procuring vaccines on their own, on their explicit requests. The states very well knew the production capacity in the country and what the difficulties are in procuring vaccines directly from abroad.”

ET’s questionnaire to Paul asking for the names of the states that had made requests for direct procurement as well as the dates of the requests was not replied to till press time. Paul’s statement had also said, “But states, who had not even achieved good coverage of healthcare workers and frontline workers in three months wanted to open up the process of vaccination and wanted more decentralisation. Health is a state subject and the liberalised vaccine policy was a result of the incessant requests being made by the states to give them power.”

Age Criteria for Vaccination

Some states had indeed sought flexibility in the Covid-19 immunisation drive but with requests to lower the limit or for the strategy to be tailored to local needs. For instance, in early April, Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh had written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi asking the Centre to give flexibility to states to devise local strategies for immunisation within the broad parameters of the Centre’s approach, like allowing adults in high-risk areas as well those below 45 years suffering from liver and kidney diseases get vaccinated.

Chief ministers of Chhattisgarh, Delhi and Maharashtra had written to the PM in April demanding that the minimum age for vaccination be lowered.

After the new policy was announced on April 19, several public health experts had criticised the Centre’s decision to put the onus of vaccine procurement for those below 45 years on states.

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