Amid incidents of violence against healthcare personnel deployed in fighting COVID-19, the Union Cabinet on Wednesday cleared an ordinance to make such attacks a cognizable and non-bailable offence, with a maximum jail term of seven years and a fine of Rs 5 lakh.
Briefing reporters on the Cabinet decision, Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar said the ordinance to amend the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, will cover all healthcare personnel, including ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activist) workers at the community level.
According to the proposed amendments, if the injuries inflicted are not grievous, the jail term may range from three months to five years, and the fine from Rs 50,000 to Rs 2 lakh. In case of serious injuries, the jail term may range from six months to seven years, and the fine from Rs 1 lakh to Rs 5 lakh. The investigation into the attack must be completed within a month.
The amendments will also apply to harassment by landlords and neighbours. The penal provisions can be invoked in case of damage to property, including a clinical establishment, a facility identified for quarantine and isolation of patients, and mobile medical units.
“The Epidemic Diseases (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020 manifests our commitment to protect each and every healthcare worker who is bravely battling COVID-19 on the frontline. It will ensure safety of our professionals. There can be no compromise on their safety,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted.
Modi is scheduled to hold a video conference with chief ministers on April 27 to discuss the COVID-19 situation.
Home Minister Amit Shah, who held a meeting with doctors and members of the Indian Medical Association (IMA) along with Health Minister Harsh Vardhan on Wednesday, tweeted: “PM @narendramodi’s govt is committed to protecting those who are protecting India during these challenging times. Bringing an ordinance to end violence against our doctors & health workers is a testimony of the same. Safety and dignity of our doctors at their work place is non-negotiable.”
The IMA, which had earlier threatened a protest, has decided to withdraw it.
In separate letters to states, Union Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla and Union Health Secretary Preeti Sudan asked them to ensure the safety of healthcare workers.
Meanwhile, with 1,486 new cases and 49 deaths being reported in the last 24 hours, the tally is now 20,471 cases (3,959 recovered) and 652 deaths.
And, a day after asking states not to use the rapid antibody tests for two days pending field validation, following complaints of varying accuracy, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) reiterated that these tests should be used only for the purpose of surveillance.
“Globally also, the utility of this test is evolving and it is currently being used for detecting the formation of antibodies in individuals. These test results are also dependent on field conditions. As noted by ICMR, these tests cannot replace the RT-PCR test to diagnose COVID-19 cases. ICMR has assured assistance to collect data from various states to assess the scope and extent of utility of these rapid antibody tests in field conditions, and ICMR shall keep advising the states on a regular basis,” the Union Health Ministry said in a statement.
In a letter to state chief secretaries, ICMR ADG Dr G S Toteja said: “I would again reiterate that antibody rapid tests are largely to be used as a tool for surveillance with respect to formation of antibody in persons exposed to the virus.”
In an addendum to the existing testing strategy, the ICMR has now said that “pregnant women residing in clusters/ containment area or in large migration gatherings/ evacuees centre from hotspot districts presenting in labour or likely to deliver in next 5 days should be tested even if asymptomatic.”
In his letter, Union Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla urged states, UTs and district authorities to “take strict penal action against the offenders who obstruct government health officials, or other health professionals and/ or related persons, who are authorised under the Disaster Management Act, 2005, in the discharge of their lawful services”.
“A few heinous instances of unruly behaviour by people have also been reported in some parts of the country where the family and relatives of medical professionals, suspected to have died due to COVlD-l9 infection, were prevented from performing the last rites of the deceased. In such cases, adequate security should be provided, and stringent action should be taken against such offenders,” he said.
States have been told to appoint nodal officers to redress such safety issues.
Listing the Centre’s initiatives to safeguard the health and safety of doctors, Sudan wrote: “Doctors and health professionals are in the forefront of the fight against COVID-19. The skills and spirit of service among these professionals places them in a unique position to save people from the disease. It is of utmost importance that adequate measures are taken for ensuring their safety.”
Sudan also said that orders for 1 crore sets of personal protective equipment (PPEs) have been placed with the 50 newly approved domestic manufacturers, and 5.11 lakh PPEs have been sent to the states so far.
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