The Bombay High Court in an interim order on Thursday said the Maharashtra government must prioritise inoculating people who had prior appointments for vaccination against COVID-19 through the CoWIN portal. A bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice G S Kulkarni said the state must first administer the available vaccines to those with prior confirmed appointments, and administer only the surplus doses to people who took "on the spot or walk-in" slots for vaccinations.
This system would streamline the vaccination drive in the state, given that there is a shortage of vaccine stocks currently, the HC said.
It directed the state to ensure that those with prior appointments were not made to wait in queue for long hours at the vaccination centres.
The court also said the state must take special steps to vaccinate on priority the health care or frontline workers, who were yet to be vaccinated.
The HC was hearing two Public Interest Litigations (PILs) seeking the court's intervention over the issues faced by citizens in booking vaccination slots on the CoWIN portal.
The petitioners' counsels, Jamsheed Master and Anita Castellino, told the bench that the CoWIN portal opens at specific time each day and all vaccine slots get filled within seconds.
"Sometimes, even after the vaccine appointment is given and the person goes to the centre, he/she is turned back saying there are no vaccines available as the stock was exhausted because the doses were administered to people who came in walk-in slots," Master said.
He told the bench that his own father, a senior citizen, had got an appointment for vaccine at the Nair Hospital at the preferred slot of 9 am to 11 am, but was finally administered the jab at 4.45 pm.
Master said there were several senior citizens waiting in the queue under the sun without a break for food, water, or going to the toilet.
There was overcrowding at vaccination centres and even wheel-chaired persons had to wait for long hours, he said.
The HC said such conditions were inhuman. It also asked if the system of preferred slot was just a "sham"?
"This is unfair to citizens. What if a person waiting in the queue is diabetic and needs to have food? You just cannot make them wait like this for hours," the HC said.
There is a nice system for booking online vaccines (slots), but why is this parallel system (of walk-ins) being run? the court asked.
The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation's (BMC) counsel, Geeta Sashtri, told the bench that the civic body had a limited stock of vaccines and hence, the available slots on the CoWIN portal get booked quickly.
She said the civic body had already issued expression of interests (EoIs) for importing vaccines.
Sashtri also said the state was scheduled to receive a stock of two lakh vaccines from the Serum Institute of India on Thursday evening.
However, there was no system in place currently for regular supply of vaccines from the Union government, the counsel said.
The HC said the state could look at the vaccination model followed by western countries.
"Look at America. It was one of the worst-affected countries, but it has vaccinated a majority of its population. How many PILs were filed in America?" the HC said.
If no PILs were filed, then it means either the system is working or citizens are not conscious, the court noted.
"It can't be that American citizens are not conscious. Why can't you have such smooth system of vaccination in the state?" the HC asked.
All citizens also had a duty to follow COVID-19 safety protocols, it said.
One cannot not merely lay a claim to one's right to getting the anti-COVID-19 vaccine and not follow any safety rules laid down by the government, the court said.
"What happened in February 2021 when everybody gathered throwing caution to the wind?" the HC said.
"Everyone decided to go for weddings, stopped wearing masks...we had stated in our earlier order that citizens should not only think of rights, but also of duty," it said.
The HC said while there were problems with the state's current arrangements on issuing vaccination slots and managing queues, most of the problems would be solved once the state had adequate stock of vaccines.
"In the meanwhile, we have to remain patient. First you (citizens) create turmoil, then when the situation worsens, you panic and then scream vaccine, vaccine, vaccine," the court said.
The HC will continue the hearing on June 2.
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