COVID-19: SC asks Centre for way to make tests free at pvt labs

Solicitor General says private labs roped in since government labs insufficient; contradicts ICMR’s position

By Banjot Kaur
Published: Wednesday 08 April 2020

The Supreme Court asked the Union government on April 8, 2020 to ensure tests for the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) were conducted free of cost at private laboratories.

The apex court heard a public interest litigation filed by advocate Shashank Dev Sudhi.

“The laboratories should not be allowed to charge a high fee of Rs 4,500 for tests, since this is an emergency situation,” Sudhi quoted the apex court bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan and Ravindra S Bhat, as saying.

The government may create a mechanism to reimburse private labs, but there should not be any room given to let people be charged, the apex court observed, according to Sudhi.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta said the Centre will look into the apex court’s suggestion.

The court, in turn, said it would pass a necessary order to that effect.

“The court was totally in favour of people being tested free of cost. An order to this effect would come by today evening,” Sudhi told Down To Earth.

“There are 15,000 tests currently being conducted by 118 laboratories,” Mehta was quoted as saying by legal portals Live Law and Bar & Bench.

“This was not sufficient. So private labs had to be roped in,” he added.

This was, however, in stark contrast to what Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) director general Balram Bhargava had said on March 12, 2020.

“Many private labs approached us saying they would want to serve the nation during this time, so we decided to take them on board,” Bhargava said.

The Centre’s official response in daily press briefings, since then, has always been that public sector labs were never short of any capacity, and that the utilisation rate of the labs was not 100 per cent.

ICMR had also appealed to private labs to conduct tests for free, after giving them a go-ahead.

This appeal was rejected the same day, with the government allowing private labs to charge Rs 4,500 per test.

Ensure ventilator availability in every district

The creation of adequate infrastructure to handle the pandemic was a must, said the petition by Sudhi.

“Since a majority of government hospitals in our country are without the facility of the ventilators, it must be ensured that every district hospital must have adequate number of ventilators to cater to the needed medical emergency,” his petition said.

A survey conducted by the Centre among 266 Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officials across the country in the last week of March, pointed out an acute shortage of ventilators.

Sufficient ventilators were not available in their respective jurisdictions, said 71 per cent of the total respondents.

Of the 266 respondents, 100 disagreed, 91 strongly disagreed, 23 chose to remain neutral and nine agreed to a question regarding sufficient availability of ventilators.

A bunch of other petitions — apart from Sudhi’s — were also filed in the apex court for passing necessary orders to ensure availability of health infrastructure and personnel protective equipment for healthcare workers.

Sudhi also batted for the Centre to be more transparent in providing daily information to the press so that people were aware of its policies and strategy.

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