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NEW DELHI : The Centre will provide free covid-19 vaccines to all adults from 21 June, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced on Monday, in a revision of the government’s much-touted strategy of ‘liberalized and accelerated" vaccination.

The central government will now buy 75% of vaccines and give them free of cost to states, Modi said.

“No state government would be spending anything for vaccines. Till now, crores of people got free vaccine; now the 18+years segment will be added to this. Government of India will provide free vaccines to all citizens," the Prime Minister said, just days after the Supreme Court slammed its pricing policy as “arbitrary and irrational".

Modi said “many states" had asked for a return to the system that was in place before 1 May, when the government launched a “liberalized and accelerated" drive for the Centre to buy 50% of all vaccines, and states and private firms to buy 25% each.

“It has been decided that the 25% vaccination that was with states will now be undertaken by the government of India. This will be rolled out in two weeks. In two weeks, the Centre and states will make necessary preparations as per new guidelines," Modi said.

“The system of 25% vaccines being procured directly by private hospitals will continue. State governments will monitor that only 150 service charge is levied by private hospitals over the decided price of the vaccines," he said.

The previous policy came under a cloud after states complained they were unable to procure vaccines from manufactures, who preferred to sell directly to the Centre, with the result that private hospitals ended up with bigger stocks than the states.

Controversy ballooned in the wake of the Supreme Court’s criticism, demands from opposition-ruled states for free vaccines and reports that the pandemic had spiralled out of control because of an acute shortage for hospital beds, life-saving equipment and vaccines.

The apex court said on 2 June that the Centre’s vaccination policy was “prima facie arbitrary and irrational" in the way it sought to introduce paid inoculation by states and private hospitals for 18-44-year-olds after keeping it free for those above 45.

Allowing political rallies in West Bengal and millions to congregate in Hardwar for the Kumbh Mela were also blamed for a devastating surge in cases.

According to the government, however, over 167 million people have been administered at least one dose, translating to a 12.21% coverage, including 43% of people who are 60 years of age and older.

Several states have recently asked for more fiscal support, vaccine supplies and a reduction in Goods and Services Tax (GST) on locally produced medical supplies including vaccines. Revenue pressures had already led to fissures in Centre-state relations.

“Supply of vaccine is about to increase. Today, seven companies are producing different types of vaccines. Trials of three more vaccines are in the advanced stage. Trials are on for two vaccines for children and a ‘nasal vaccine’," said Modi.

Explaining the shift, he said, “Starting from 16 January to April end, India’s vaccination programme was run mostly under the Centre. Free vaccination for all was moving forward and people were showing discipline in getting vaccinated when their turn came. In the midst of all this, demands for decentralization of vaccination were raised, decision about priority to certain age groups were raised. Many types of pressures were exerted and certain sections of media took it as campaign."

The Lancet Citizens’ Commission on Reimagining India’s Health System recently called for establishing central systems to procure and distribute covid-19 vaccines free of cost.

Public health experts and industry bodies welcomed the new policy. Modi also announced the extension of a free foodgrain programme launched last year, till the end of November. Under this, free foodgrain will be supplied to 800 million vulnerable people till Diwali.

“The idea is that no one goes to sleep hungry," Modi said.

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