Chandigarh: The Punjab government Friday ordered a recall of all the vaccines that were given to private hospitals in the last one month. Officials in the state government said the vaccines were given to hospitals on their request as they were unable to procure them directly from manufacturers, amid a growing demand from the private sector to vaccinate people who are not healthcare workers but whose contributions are crucial to sustain the state’s economy.
Opposition Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) had Thursday accused the Punjab government of selling vaccines to private hospitals and making “hefty margins” and creating an “artificial shortage” of the shots for the common man. According to SAD chief Sukhbir Singh Badal, a Covaxin dose procured by the state for Rs 400 was sold to private hospitals at Rs 1,060.
A senior state health ministry official, however, told ThePrint that the opposition’s allegations were “just dog-whistling”.
“The idea was to support the private sector. If the private hospitals approach the government to help them vaccinate more people, what’s wrong? If someone can pay for the vaccine in a private hospital, why not? That money will help to provide free vaccines to thousands of others who can’t pay. The money made out of the supposed margins (Rs 660 each vaccine) went to a separate vaccine account created by the government,” the official said. “That money is to be used to procure more vaccines for the people who can’t afford it. It’s so ridiculous to talk about a scam.”
Official sources said 42,000 doses of the vaccines were given to private hospitals as they were “running short”. If the government got Rs 660 per dose extra — over the price it paid — the total amount would come to Rs 2.77 crore, the sources added.
“Are we talking about a scam of Rs 2-3 crore? Isn’t it ridiculous? Anyway, this extra money has to be in that separate account and it will go into buying more vaccines for the poor people,” said the aforementioned senior government functionary.
“Private hospitals have been vaccinating people between 18 and 44 years of age, who are going out to work and are at risk. When they ran short of doses, they sought our help, saying that the shortage was affecting the pace of vaccination. We then decided to give them 42,000 doses as the intention is to vaccinate the maximum number of people,” the official added.
“The state sold the vaccines to private hospitals at Rs 1,060, and the differential amount was put in a separate account, which is to be used for buying more vaccines from the manufacturers, to be used for the public at large,” the official said.
Meanwhile, as a controversy erupted over the issue, Punjab Health Minister Balbir Singh Sidhu ordered a probe into the decision to sell vaccines to private hospitals.
‘Decision not taken in right spirit’
The state nodal officer for vaccination, Vikas Garg, Friday passed an order saying private hospitals should “return forthwith all the vaccine doses available with them”.
The order, a copy of which has been accessed by ThePrint, said the decision to provide “one-time limited vaccine doses to 18-44 years of age group population through private hospitals has not been taken in the right spirit and is hereby withdrawn”.
The order further said the doses that have been utilised by the private hospitals should also be returned once they get their supplies from manufacturers.
Speaking to ThePrint, Suresh Kumar, Special Principal Secretary to the Chief Minister, also said the order relating to the sale of vaccines to private hospitals has been withdrawn.
Health minister orders probe
State Health Minister Balbir Singh Sidhu, speaking to the media, said the decision was taken at the level of the chief secretary and the nodal vaccination in charge. The health department, he added, was not involved in the decision.
Announcing an investigation, he said, “The health department will get to the bottom of how this decision (to give vaccines to private hospitals) was taken in the first place. The health department was not involved in this decision as we are only engaged in the testing of Covid and vaccinating the population. This decision was taken at the level of the chief secretary and Vikas Garg.”
Punjab Chief Secretary Vini Mahajan did not respond to ThePrint’s phone calls or messages for comment.