The Supreme Court Thursday stayed proceedings in the Delhi High Court on giving priority to the legal fraternity for administering COVID-19 vaccine and favoured transferring the suo motu case on the issue to itself for adjudication.
The Centre opposed creating a separate class of lawyers and said that though it is not opposed to the legal fraternity members but tomorrow journalists and banking sector employees may also come forward seeking priority in vaccination.
A bench of Chief Justice Bobde and Justices AS Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian asked the Centre to consider the request of lawyers for priority in vaccination as their livelihood depends on contact with people and their apprehension of getting the infection is genuine.
Since the issues pending before this Court are the same as the one pending before the Delhi High Court, we are of the considered view that the matter(s)...pending before the Delhi High Court should be transferred to this Court, the bench said.
It also sought responses from the Centre and others on the pleas of the Serum Institute of India (SII) and Bharat Biotech seeking transfer of the cases from the high courts to the apex court.
The vaccine manufacturers have said that different high courts are seeking data on vaccine production and by when they will be able to provide it to all.
At the outset, senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi, appearing for Bharat Biotech, said that the apex court should transfer to itself the related cases pending before the Delhi High Court.
The senior lawyer said the manufacturers do not want to disclose the production capacity in open as other interested parties may take advantage of it.
This is a serious and larger issue which relates to the whole of India. Every high court will then start passing orders with respect to the people of their respective state, Rohatgi said.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, representing the Centre, said that he supports the vaccine manufacturer on this matter as this is an all India issue and it is imperative that this court examine it.
I support both the manufacturers. Last August an expert panel was constituted which is looking at administration of vaccine and categorization as per global standards. I have given the details in my affidavit. Government has categorised the priority of medicine based on who really needs the medicines. Both the Delhi and Bombay High Courts matters should be transferred to this court and Centre's response be examined, he said.
Senior advocate Harish Salve, appearing for SII, said that it is kind of embarrassing the way this issue is being taken up by the courts and judicial review parameters need to be looked into.
The bench said that it is not about embarrassment and the high court only wanted to know the capacity of production of vaccine as livelihood of advocates depends on contact with people and hence they have certain genuine apprehension.
It asked the Solicitor General whether lawyers can be vaccinated on priority.
Mehta said, I need to have instructions on this. I don't have anything against the lawyers. Even I am not vaccinated, as I don't fall in the criteria but a vegetable vendor whose livelihood also depends on coming in contact with other peoples, why should he not be given priority in vaccination."
Mehta further told the bench, If tomorrow journalists come forward that their livelihood also depends on coming into contact with other people and they are also a separate class and need to be vaccinated on priority. Then what should we do? We cannot create a separate class on the basis of profession?
The bench said, We don't know how journalists go about their business but what we do know is that journalists' work can be done even without coming in contact with people unlike lawyers .
Mehta also said that then there can be a category of banking people, who will say they need the vaccination on priority as they come in contact with people every day and the list can go on.
The bench said that it understands the apprehension expressed by some classes of people but it also appreciates the fact that India is leading in the vaccination drive.
There are certain categories of people like lawyers and doctors who need contact for their livelihood. Will the expert committee see that these categories of people are vaccinated, the top court said.
Mehta said the expert committee is looking at how vaccination is taking place in the country and it has to take a holistic view of the situation and he will have to seek instructions on the view of the court.
The bench then posted the matter for further hearing next week.
The Centre had earlier told the top court that it may not be desirable to create a separate class of judges, lawyers and court staff below the age of 45 for administering the COVID-19 vaccine on priority basis.
On March 4, the Delhi High Court had asked the Centre to explain the rationale behind keeping strict control over class of persons who can be vaccinated against COVID-19 currently as under the present system those above the age of 60 years or with comorbidities can receive vaccination.
It had said the two institutes which have developed the vaccines Covishield and Covaxin -- Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech -- to file separate affidavits on their capacity to manufacture the vaccines on per day/ week/ month basis and also the current optic of the vaccines and how much unused capacity is lying.