The government on Wednesday brought in an ordinance making acts of violence against healthcare personnel treating COVID-19 patients a non-bailable offence with a maximum jail term of seven years and Rs 5 lakh fine, in the wake of spiralling cases of attacks on them across the country.
The government said the law will mandate that the police complete probe in such cases within 30 days and that the courts pronounce judgment within a year.
Soon after the Union Cabinet approved the ordinance, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said there can be no compromise on the safety of healthcare professionals fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.
Earlier, Home Minister Amit Shah told a group of doctors and representatives of the Indian Medical Association that safety of health care professionals treating the virus infected patients is non-negotiable.
After its meeting with Shah, the IMA, which had been demanding a law to protect healthcare professionals, called off its proposed protests on April 22 and 23.
At a media briefing after the Cabinet approved the ordinance, Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar said a person can be sentenced to anywhere between three months and five years in jail, besides a fine between Rs 50,000 and two lakh, for such crimes under the new provision.
In cases where injuries are serious, the punishment will range from six months to seven years, and carry fine between Rs 1-5 lakhs, the minister said and asserted that the government has "zero tolerance" for violence and harassment against doctors, nurses, paramedics and other healthcare personnel.
The ordinance will amend the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, and the amended law will also be invoked if healthcare personnel face harassment from their landlords or neighbours over suspicion that they may carry the coronavirus infection due to the nature of their work, he said.
An offence under the amended law will be cognizable and non-bailable, Javadekar said.
Cognizable and non-bailable offence means that police can arrest the accused, and only courts can release them on bail.
Separately, the home ministry, in a letter, asked all states and union territories to provide adequate security to doctors and front-line health workers who are facing attacks from unruly people.
The Union health ministry also advised chief secretaries of all states and union territories to adopt adequate measures in ensuring the safety of the health workers.
There have been increasing cases of doctors, nurses and paramedics facing attacks and social ostracism across the country with people targeting them due to their exposure to infected patients.
A number of medical bodies including the AIIMS Resident Doctors Association welcomed the government's decision.
"We appreciate the central government for taking note of the situation, albeit late, and ensuring immediate amendments are made as feasible so that front-line warriors are able to serve the country without fear," AIIMS RDA General Secretary, Dr Srinivas Rajkumar T, said.
Javadekar said that people responsible for violence will also be liable to pay damages, which will be double the market value of the property vandalised.
Asked whether the changes in the law will be applicable even after the threat of COVID-19 is over, the minister told reporters that the ordinance has been approved to amend the Epidemic Act.
"But it is a good beginning," the information and broadcasting minister said, without elaborating.
Javadekar noted that Home Minister Amit Shah and Health Minister Harsh Vardhan had a meeting through video conference with a group of doctors and representatives of IMA earlier on Wednesday.
The minister underlined the government's commitment to helping health professionals involved in fighting COVID-19 by noting that it had earlier brought them under an insurance cover of Rs 50 lakh.
The amended law will come into effect after the President promulgates it and the government notifies it.