Taking serious note of instances of non-payment of salary to doctors treating COVID-19 patients \the Supreme Court on Friday said the country cannot afford to have “dissatisfied soldiers” in the war against the pandemic, and asked authorities to go the extra mile to raise funds for them.
“In war, you do not make soldiers unhappy. Travel extra mile and channel some extra money to address their grievances. Country cannot afford to have dissatisfied soldiers in this war which is being fought against Corona,” the court said.
As the judiciary took up the cause of the frontline healthcare workers, the Delhi high court also directed the North Delhi Municipal Corporation to pay by June 19 the salary for March to the resident doctors in its six hospitals, including Kasturba Gandhi and Hindu Rao.
A bench of Chief Justice D N Patel and Justice Prateek Jalan asked the Delhi government to release funds to the North DMC so that it can pay the April salary of the resident doctors of its hospitals by June 24.
The court gave the order on a PIL initiated on its own based on news reports that doctors of Kasturba Gandhi hospital have threatened to resign as they have not been paid salaries since March this year.
In the apex court, a bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan, S K Kaul and M R Shah said the courts should not be involved in the issue of non-payment of salary to health care workers and that government should settle the issue.
The top court was hearing a plea by a doctor Dr Arushi Jain, who alleged that front line healthcare workers engaged in the fight against COVID-19 are not being paid salaries or their salaries are being cut or delayed.
The petitioner had also questioned the Centre's new Standard Operating Procedure(SOP) making the 14-day quarantine after completion of roster duty non-mandatory.
The bench also noted there are reports coming that in many areas doctors are not being paid.
“We saw a report that doctors went on strike. In Delhi, some doctors have not been paid for past three months. These are concerns that should have been taken care off. It should not require court intervention," it said, adding, “You (Centre) need to do more. Must make sure their concerns are addressed”.
The bench then posted the matter for further hearing next week.
Senior advocate K V Viswanathan, appearing for the petitioner, said doctors are now being subjected to wage reduction and if they are working under any government orders, then no reduction should be done.
“Even private hospitals should not cut salaries of doctors”, he said.
He also said that doctors and other health care workers, who are engaged in COVID-19 duty, run a great risk of exposure of infection without proper personal protection equipment kits and without proper accommodation, their family members are also at a higher risk of infection.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Centre, submitted that government has given suggestions for accommodation in its affidavit and if any more suggestions are made, then they can be looked into.
On June 4, the Centre told the top court that though hospitals are responsible for implementing the Infection Prevention and Control activities, the final responsibility lies with the health care workers to protect themselves from COVID-19.
It further said mandatory quarantine for 14 days after the duty of healthcare workers of 7/14 days is “not justified and warranted”.
The Centre's affidavit was filed on the plea by Dr Arushi Jain who questioned the Centre's new SOP of May 15 for frontline COVID-19 healthcare workers by which it ended the 14-day mandatory quarantine for them.
The ministry in its reply affidavit said healthcare workers are properly protected by Personal Protective Equipments (PPE) in workplace settings and carry no additional risk to their families or children.
Justifying its advisory and SOPs, the health ministry said it is a step in the right direction and the guidelines emphasise the role of taking adequate preventive measures by all health care workers in the hospital setting against the likelihood of contracting infection at their work place.
On April 8, the apex court had observed that the 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 PPEs are made available to them for treating coronavirus patients.
At the Delhi high court, the Chief Justice-headed bench also issued notice to the Centre, Delhi government, North DMC and various doctors' association seeking their stand on the PIL initiated by it.
The matter was listed for further hearing on July 8.
The Delhi government was represented by Additional Solicitor General Sanjay Jain and additional standing counsel Satyakam, while the Centre was represented by its standing counsel Anil Soni.
Satyakam and Soni said the amount to be paid, each month, to the resident doctors of the six North DMC hospitals comes to around Rs 8 crore.
Jai Prakash, Chairman of the Standing Committee of the North Delhi Municipal Corporation, which runs Hindu Rao Hospital and Kasturba Hospital, said, "the matter is being resolved".
"Representatives of the Resident Doctors Associations of the two hospitals met me yesterday. We have assured them that we will try to pay their due salaries, if not at once, for one month right now, and then slowly for subsequent months," he said.
"We have explained to them that MCD is not getting revenues in this coronavirus situation, so they must consider our constraint too."
Meanwhile, junior doctors at the state-run Gandhi Hospital in Hyderabad who struck work from June 9 in protest against the attack on a doctor by kin of a deceased COVID-19 patient and over their demands, including decentralisation of coronavirus patients' treatment, resumed duty on Friday following Health minister E Rajender's assurance to address their grievances.
Gandhi hospital Junior Doctors Association president Lohith Reddy said they have resumed duty.
"Keeping public health in consideration, especially in view of the pandemic we are fighting and trusting the minister's reassuring words, JUDA has decided to conditionally call off the strike and resume duties with immediate effect," the association said in a release.