The Centre on Wednesday told the Delhi High Court that the decision to vaccinate people against the coronavirus was based on vulnerability of citizens to the infection and was not profession wise, reported PTI.
The Centre made the submission in response to a public interest litigation taken up by the High Court to examine the demand to declare all people associated with the judicial functioning, including judges, court staff and lawyers, as frontline workers so that they can receive the Covid-19 vaccination on a priority basis, without any limitation on their age and health condition.
A Bench of Justices Vipin Sanghi and Rekha Palli said the court hopes that the government is sensitive to the needs of citizens. “Judiciary is an important wing and one of the three pillars of the state,” the bench said. “To compare it with others is not correct. Its functioning is getting hampered. Nobody can deny that efficiency of cases has taken a huge hit. Hundreds and thousands of people congregate here daily and everyday different people are coming. Risk of exposure is there.”
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Centre, told the High Court that factors such as vulnerability and comorbidities were rational and fundamental and was guiding vaccinations plans across the world, reported Bar and Bench.
“Out of the three wings, the central government has taken this decision of classification on the basis of age, vulnerability and co-morbidity,” he said. “Even the executive and legislature are not entitled for vaccine right now unless they are above 60 years of age or between the age of 45 to 59 years with comorbidities.”
The solicitor general submitted that the lawyers above 60 years of age or between 45 and 59 years with co-morbidities were being already covered under the current vaccine policy.
Mehta said the government was very sensitive to the needs of the citizens, which would be clear from its affidavit filed in the case. “It is not as if citizens in India are being deprived of vaccines while vaccines are being exported abroad,” he argued.
Senior Advocates Vikas Singh and Ramesh Gupta, representing the coordination committee of all bar associations of district courts, raised objections to the Centre’s stance. Singh objected to the Centre treating the legal profession as any other line of work. “This profession is important for the functioning of the judiciary,” he argued.
Gupta told the High Court that the Centre has already categorised certain other professionals such as revenue officials, municipal workers and members of the armed forces as “frontline workers”, who are eligible for the vaccine.
Mehta countered the argument, saying that revenue officials are exposed to the coronavirus because of their contact tracing functions. He further submitted that even doctors who are directly or can be potentially exposed to the infection are eligible for the vaccine.
“Eventually, all people – their turn would come,” Mehta said. “We just started on February 1... priority is vulnerability sections, sections which have direct exposure to Covid-19 patients... These are reasonable classifications... Not for a second, I am suggesting that role of lawyers or judiciary is less.”
The High Court adjourned the case after it was told that by Mehta and senior advocate Neeraj Kishan Kaul, representing biotechnology company Bharat Biotech, that a similar plea is filed in the Supreme Court, which is likely to take it up on March 15.
Kaul also told the bench that another petition on the matter was being heard in the Bombay High Court. He submitted that the Bharat Biotech has filed a petition in the Supreme Court seeking transfer of similar cases from various High Courts to the top court.
The High Court said that the affidavit filed by the Centre and Bharat Biotech was not on record. It asked the counsels to take to place them on record and listed the matter for further hearing on March 19.
In the Bombay High Court hearing on the same matter, Justice Dipankar Datta drew a comparison with the captain of the ship “Titanic”, as portrayed in the Hollywood movie of the same title. “Have you seen Titanic? Do you remember the captain of the ship?” he asked the petitioners. “You remember what he did. He was the last one. I am the captain here. First everyone else gets [the vaccine], then the judiciary gets.”
Datta further said that the plea was a “selfish” one suggesting that survival was more important under the current scenario. “You are asking us to hold that judges should be vaccinated first because we are frontline workers?” the judge said. “Why not ask for people who are picking up garbage outside your work? What happens when someone does not survive?”
The Bombay High Court then posted the matter for further hearing on March 17.
Last month, the Supreme Court had agreed to hear a petition seeking inclusion of lawyers, judges and court staff in the priority list for coronavirus vaccination. The court had sought the Centre’s response in the matter. Notably, vaccination for Supreme Court judges, including those who have retired, and their families, began earlier this month.
On March 1, India began its second phase of vaccination under which people above 60 years of age and those above 45 with co-morbidities, are eligible to receive the shots. India had begun the rollout of Covid-19 vaccines on January 16, with a target of inoculating 30 crore people by July.
A total of 2,43,67,906 vaccine doses have been administered so far. Of these, 13,59,173 were given on Tuesday.