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SC sets up task force for Covid response, oxygen audit, supply

The order said the Centre had suggested that “in order to ensure that the allocation and distribution of oxygen takes place on a rational and equitable basis, it is necessary to constitute a National Task Force of experts which would determine the method of allocation and distribution of oxygen across states/UTs”.

Written by Ananthakrishnan G | New Delhi |
Updated: May 9, 2021 6:08:36 am
Covid-19Tankers being transported using the Oxygen Express train. (Twitter/@RailMinIndia)

The Supreme Court has put in place a 12-member National Task Force (NTF), including top experts and doctors from across the country, “to facilitate a public health response to the pandemic based on scientific and specialised domain knowledge”.

The Task Force would also undertake an oxygen audit for “formulating a methodology for the scientific allocation of oxygen to states and UTs (Union Territories)”. The Union Cabinet Secretary or a nominee of the official will serve as Convenor of the NTF.

“It is necessary that an effective and transparent mechanism is set up within the Union government for the purpose of allocating medical oxygen to all states and UTs for being used during the Covid-19 pandemic. The Union Government has agreed to set up a National Task Force to streamline the process,” a Bench of Justices D Y Chandrachud and M R Shah said in its May 6 order, which was uploaded on Saturday.

The order said the Centre had suggested that “in order to ensure that the allocation and distribution of oxygen takes place on a rational and equitable basis, it is necessary to constitute a National Task Force of experts which would determine the method of allocation and distribution of oxygen across states/UTs”.

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“The Court suggested that an expert body drawn of inter alia renowned national experts with diverse experience in health institutions can be considered for being set up as a National Task Force, which will provide a public health response to the pandemic on the basis of a scientific approach”. The Centre through Solicitor General Tushar Mehta agreed to this.

The order came on a plea by the Centre challenging the contempt notice issued to it by the Delhi High Court over medical oxygen supply to Delhi. The Delhi government held that “there is no need for an audit and, if at all an audit is to be conducted, it should be of the availability of tankers”.

While overruling the objection, the Court clarified that till the NTF has submitted its recommendations, the Centre shall “continue with the present practice of making allocations of oxygen (as modified by the orders of this Court or the orders of the High Courts as the case may be)”.

Earlier, the Court had stayed the contempt notice to the Centre, while directing it to remedy any oxygen shortage forthwith and to supply Delhi 700 MT (metric tonnes).

In the May 6 order, the Court asked the Centre to ensure that its direction on 700 MT “is strictly observed on a daily basis, pending further orders”.

The Court ordered the Task Force to “commence work immediately”, dealing with oxygen issues “expeditiously within a week”. Its term shall be six months initially, with its recommendations to be submitted to the government as well as the Court.

The Bench said the NTF would “facilitate a public health response to the pandemic based on scientific and specialised domain knowledge”, and urged “leading experts in the country” to work with it “both as members and resource persons”.

The ex-officio members named to the NTF by it include Bhabatosh Biswas, former Vice-Chancellor, West Bengal University of Health Sciences, Kolkata; Dr Devender Singh Rana, Chairperson, Board of Management, Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, Delhi; Devi Prasad Shetty, Chairperson and Executive Director, Narayana Healthcare, Bengaluru; Gagandeep Kang, Professor, Christian Medical College (CMC), Vellore, Tamil Nadu; J V Peter, Director, CMC; Naresh Trehan, Chairperson and Managing Director, Medanta Hospital and Heart Institute, Gurugram, Rahul Pandit, Director, Critical Care Medicine and ICU, Fortis Hospital, Mulund and Kalyan (Maharashtra); Saumitra Rawat, Chairman & Head, Department of Surgical Gastroenterology and Liver Transplant, Sir Ganga Ram Hospital; Shiv Kumar Sarin, Senior Professor and Head of Department of Hepatology, and Director, Institute of Liver and Biliary Sciences (ILBS), Delhi; Zarir F Udwadia, Consultant Chest Physician, Hinduja Hospital, Breach Candy Hospital and Parsee General Hospital, Mumbai; and the Secretary, Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.

Dr Rana of Ganga Ram said, “While the government will be taking the final decision, we will suggest ways to ramp up the production of oxygen and streamline the issues faced by each state. We will advise the government to ensure that oxygen is equally distributed to states as well as hospitals. More oxygen plants should be installed so that the problem doesn’t arise in the future.”

Dr Rawat, also of Ganga Ram, said it was the first time the government was facing such a problem, due to the surge in oxygen demand. ” As a doctor, we have seen that hospitals are on the edge with supply left of one-two hours. So, now the focus should be on availability and distribution.”

The order said it was necessary to take into account the likely course of the pandemic so that future requirements could be scientifically mapped and modulated in the light of experiences gained. The Task Force, it said, would provide inputs on a “transparent and professional basis”.

The Court said the NTF will assess the need for oxygen for the entire country as well as availability and distribution, and devise allocation on a “scientific, rational and equitable” basis, reviewing this periodically. It will also make recommendations on augmenting the supplies.

As per the order, the NTF would facilitate audits by sub-groups in each state and UT. It specifically said that the purpose of the audit was “not to scrutinise the decisions made in good faith by doctors”. The Court specified the officials who should be part of these sub-groups, apart from doctors and a representative from the Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation.

For Delhi, this committee shall consist of Randeep Guleria, Professor and Head, Department of Pulmonary Medicine and Sleep, AIIMS, Sandeep Budhiraja, Clinical Director & Director, Internal Medicine, Max Healthcare; and an IAS officer each from the Centre and Delhi government, not below the rank of Joint Secretary.

Apart from oxygen, the NTF will review availability of essential drugs and medicines, and plan for emergencies; facilitate the use of technology to ensure optimal utilisation of available manpower; suggest incentives for medical staff; promote research; and help sharing of best practices across the country.

Since April, a nine-member government committee under DPIIT Secretary Guruprasad Mohapatra has been functioning to “ensure adequate availability of medical oxygen in the wake of COVID-19 Pandemic”. Mohapatra also heads an Empowered Group-II (EG-II) to coordinate medical logistics.

Sources in the government said the NTF is not being seen as an encroachment on the remit of the EG-II, one of several such groups formed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to tackle the pandemic.

“The group has been meeting every day and, based on situations on the ground, taking necessary decisions. That is not going to change. And in any case, the government has welcomed the Supreme Court committee since it contains eminent experts. The job of implementation still remains with the group,” said a senior official of the Empowered Group.

with inputs by Astha Saxena, Harikishan Sharma, Avishek G Dastidar

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