SC steps in, sets up 12-member National Task Force to manage O2, pandemic

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'Union government shall act on Task Force's recommendations, including on allocation of oxygen'

New Delhi: The Supreme Court has constituted a 12-member National Task Force of top medical experts to formulate a methodology for allocation of oxygen to states and union territories for saving lives of COVID-19 patients and to facilitate a public health response to the pandemic.

The top court named a sub-group for carrying out the audit exercise for Delhi's health infrastructure and allocation of oxygen and said that it shall consists of Randeep Guleria of AIIMS, Sandeep Budhiraja of Max Healthcare and two IAS officers not below the rank of Joint Secretary -- one each from the Centre and the Delhi government.

A bench of Justices DY Chandrachud and M R Shah said that the Union Cabinet Secretary will be the convenor of the national task force and may nominate an officer not below the rank of Additional Secretary to depute for him, when necessary.

The top court said in its order passed on May 6 uploaded on Saturday that the Secretary of the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare will be ex-officio member of the task force.

The bench said that other members of the task force will include Bhabatosh Biswas, former Vice Chancellor, West Bengal University of Health Sciences, Kolkata; Devender Singh Rana, Chairperson, Board of Management, Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, Delhi; Devi Prasad Shetty, Chairperson and Executive Director, Narayana Healthcare, Bengaluru; Gagandeep Kang, Professor, Christian Medical College, Vellore, Tamil Nadu; and JV Peter, Director, Christian Medical College, Vellore, Tamil Nadu.

The remaining five members are Naresh Trehan, Chairperson and Managing Director, Medanta Hospital and Heart Institute, Gurugram; Rahul Pandit, Director, Critical Care Medicine and ICU, Fortis Hospital, Mulund (Mumbai, Maharashtra) and Kalyan (Maharashtra); and Dr Saumitra Rawat, Chairman & Head, Department of Surgical Gastroenterology and Liver Transplant, Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, Delhi; Shiv Kumar Sarin of Institute of Liver and Biliary Science (ILBS), Delhi; and Zarir F Udwadia of Hinduja Hospital, Breach Candy Hospital Mumbai.

The top court said, “We expect that the leading experts in the country shall associate with the work of the Task Force both as members and resource persons” as this will facilitate a meeting of minds and the formulation of scientific strategies to deal with an unprecedented human crisis.

"The establishment of this Task Force will enable the decision makers to have inputs which go beyond finding ad-hoc solutions to the present problems. The likely future course of the pandemic must be taken into contemplation at the present time,” the bench said.

It added that this will ensure that projected future requirements can be scientifically mapped in the present and may be modulated in the light of experiences gained.

“The establishment of the Task Force will provide the Union Government with inputs and strategies for meeting the challenges of the pandemic on a transparent and professional basis, in the present and in future,” the bench said.

The top court made 12-point terms of reference which include assessing and making recommendations for the entire country based on the need for, availability and distribution of medical oxygen and to facilitate auditing by sub-groups within each State and UT.

It said that the sub-groups will do audit to determine whether the supplies allocated by the Centre reach the concerned State/UT, the efficacy of the distribution networks in distributing supplies meant for hospitals, health care institutions and others and whether the available stocks are being distributed on the basis of an effective, transparent and professional mechanism.

The top court said that the Task Force will constitute sub-groups/committees of each State/UT for auditing and it will comprise of an officer of the State/UT Government not below the rank of Secretary to the State Government, an officer of the Centre not below the rank of Additional/Joint Secretary and two medical doctors in the State/UT concerned including at least one with administrative experience of managing the medical facilities of a hospital and a representative from the Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation (PESO).

The bench clarified that the purpose of the audit is not to scrutinise the decisions made in good faith by doctors while treating their patients but to ensure accountability in respect of the supplies of oxygen provided to every State/UT.

“The purpose is to ensure that the supplies which have been allocated are reaching their destination; that they are being made available through the distribution network to the hospitals or, as the case may be, the end users efficiently and on a transparent basis; and to identify bottlenecks or issues in regard to the utilisation of oxygen,” the bench said on audit by sub-groups.

It said that the Centre shall continue with the present practice of making allocations of oxygen until the Task Force has submitted its recommendations in regard to proposed modalities.

“The Union Government shall on receipt of the recommendations of the Task Force take an appropriate decision in regard to the allocation of oxygen and on all other recommendations.

The bench said that the Task Force shall also submit its recommendations from time to time to this Court and requested it to commence work immediately, taking up the pressing issue of determining the modalities for oxygen expeditiously within a week. “The tenure of the Task Force shall be six months initially,” it said.

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