In a big relief to the common people, the Supreme Court on Wednesday directed that private labs should conduct coronavirus tests free of cost, observing they need to be philanthropic in the hour of national crisis.
Private labs are at present allowed to charge Rs.4,500 for screening and confirmation tests for COVID-19.
The top court in its interim order said the Centre should immediately issue directions for carrying out free COVID-19 tests in NABL accredited Labs or any agencies approved by the World Health Organisation(WHO) or the Indian Council of Medical Research(ICMR). It took note of the Centre's submission that government laboratories are conducting these tests free of cost.
A bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan and S Ravindra Bhat gave the directions on a PIL filed by advocate Shashank Deo Sudhi seeking a direction to the Centre and authorities to provide free of cost testing facility for COVID-19 to all citizens in the country.
In another coronavirus-related matter, the same bench observed that doctors and medical staff are the 'first line of defence of the country' in the battle against COVID-19 pandemic, and directed the Centre to ensure that appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) and proper security are made available to them.
Doctors and healthcare professionals are "warriors" in the fight against coronavirus and have to be protected, it said, as the Centre assured the court it is doing its best by providing them PPE and other facilities.
At the meeting of floor leaders of political parties in Parliament convened by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, several opposition leaders also raised the issue of shortage of PPE for doctors and health workers.
India has recorded a sharp spike in coronavirus cases taking the total tally on Wednesday to over 5,500 with at least 172 deaths.
"We find prima facie substance in the submission of petitioner that at this time of national calamity permitting private labs to charge Rs.4500 for screening and confirmation test of COVID-19 may not be within means of a large part of population of this country and no person be deprived to undergo the COVID-19 test due to non-payment of capped amount of Rs.4500,� the apex court said.
At the daily Health Ministry media briefing, Head of Epidemiology and Communicable diseases at ICMR Raman R Gangakhedkar said 1,21,271 tests for COVID-19 have been done in the country so far.
Out of this, 13,345 tests were conducted on Tuesday of which 2,267 tests were done in private labs. He said 139 labs under the ICMR network are currently functional and 65 private have been given approval.
The two judges, who heard the matter on video conferencing, said 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.
"We, thus, issue following interim directions to the respondents: (i)The tests relating to COVID-19 whether in approved Government Laboratories or approved private Laboratories shall be free of cost. The respondents (Centre and other authorities) shall issue necessary direction in this regard immediately. (ii) Tests relating to COVID-19 must be carried out in NABL accredited Labs or any agencies approved by WHO or ICMR."
The bench, which issued notice to the Centre and sought its response in two weeks, clarified that the question as to whether the private laboratories carrying free of cost COVID-19 tests are entitled for any reimbursement of expenses incurred shall be considered later on.
"The number of patients suffering from COVID-19 is rapidly increasing worldwide with death toll rising rapidly. In our country, in spite of various measures taken by the Government of India and different State Government/Union Territory the number of patients and death caused by it is increasing day by day," it said, adding, our country has a very large population.
While passing a slew of interim directions to ensure safety of doctors and healthcare professionals, the court also expressed concern over the recent attacks on them and directed the Centre, all states and union territories to provide necessary police security to the medical staff in hospitals and places where patients, who are either quarantined, suspected or diagnosed with COVID-19, are housed.
It directed that "states shall also take necessary action against those persons who obstruct and commit any offence in respect to performance of duties by doctors, medical staff and other government officials deputed to contain COVID-19".
The court passed the order on three petitions seeking protective kits, other requisite equipment and safety measure for doctors and healthcare workers.
It directed that necessary police security be extended to doctors and other medical staffs, who visit places to conduct screening of people to find out symptoms of the disease.
"The government shall explore all alternatives including enabling and augmenting domestic production of protective clothing and gear to medical professional. This includes exploring of alternative modes of production of such clothing (masks, suits, caps, gloves etc.) and permitting movement of raw materials," it said.
It said that the government may also restrict export of such materials to augment inventory and domestic stock.
The bench noted that the doctors and medical staff are the 'most vulnerable to fall prey to the virus, while protecting others from it'.
"The doctors and the medical staff who are the first line of defence of the country in combating this pandemic have to be protected by providing personal protective equipment as recommended by WHO on February 27, 2020," the bench added.