The Supreme Court on Wednesday directed the Centre to issue orders to make tests for Covid-19 at private laboratories free of cost. Passing an interim judgement, the court said it would consider later whether such private labs should be reimbursed for expenses they incur as a result.

Last month, the government had allowed some approved private labs to test suspected cases for the coronavirus, and had capped the cost at Rs 4,500. Government labs conduct the tests for free. So far, the Indian Council of Medical Research has approved testing at 65 private labs and 139 government labs across the country.

Advocate Shashank Deo Sudhi had filed a petition challenging the Rs 4,500 cap, and had alleged that authorities were “completely insensitive and indifferent” to the plight of common citizens who are already financially burdened due to the three-week nationwide lockdown.

A bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan and S Ravindra Bhat found “prima facie substance” in the petitioner’s claim, and said that at this time of “national calamity”, allowing private labs to charge Rs 4,500 for screening and confirmation tests “may not be within means of a large part of population of this country”. The court said no person should be deprived to undergo the Covid-19 test due to non-payment.

“The private hospitals including laboratories have an important role to play in containing the scale of pandemic by extending philanthropic services in the hour of national crisis,” the court said. The judges added that the Covid-19 tests must be carried out by labs that are accredited by the National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories or any agencies approved by the World Health Organization or the Indian Council of Medical Research.

Earlier in the day, the court had suggested that the Centre explore the feasibility of a mechanism to reimburse private labs for coronavirus tests so that citizens do not have to pay for them. The judges said that the Centre should create a mechanism wherein private labs do not charge exorbitant fees.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, representing the Centre, had told the court that the government would look into this and devise what can be done best.