The country since the onset of the second wave saw hospitals in its major cities face severe oxygen shortage which led to deaths of hundreds of patients. Major hospitals in Delhi last month moved the Supreme Court and the Delhi high court citing lack of oxygen which led to deaths of patients.
Who is part of the Task force?
The task force consists of 10 doctors and the convener of the task force will be the cabinet secretary to the Centre. The secretary to the health ministry is also part of the 12-member committee formed by the Supreme Court.
A bench headed by Justice DY Chandrachud set up the task force to assess and recommend the need and distribution of oxygen throughout India. The court-appointed task forc will also provide a public health response on the basis of a scientific approach on issues of essential drugs, manpower and medical care to rural areas.
The Supreme Court also allowed audit of medical oxygen to examine supply and efficacy of distribution of oxygen by the government of national capital territory of Delhi (GNCTD).
Dr Randeep Guleria, Dr Sandeep Budhiraja and one IAS officer each from Centre and Delhi government, will comprise the audit group for Delhi.
It said 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 rationale for constituting a Task Force at a national level is to facilitate public health response to the pandemic based on scientific and specialised domain knowledge. We expect leading experts in the country shall associate with the Task Force, as members and resource persons," the court said in its final order.
"This will facilitate a meeting of minds and the formulation of scientific strategies to deal with an unprecedented human crisis," the court added. The task force's reports will be submitted to the centre and the court.
The court called for a revamp of the centre's allocation of oxygen to different states. The court said the centre failed to consider factors like ambulances, lower-level Covid care facilities and patients in home quarantine.
The court had also demanded to know if the centre was prepping for a possible third Covid wave, which could further worsen the acute shortfall in oxygen, medicines and hospital beds.
The top court said the task force will constitute sub-groups/committees of each state/UT for auditing and it will involve 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.
What is the oxygen issue?
Oxygen has become a crucial medical resource because significantly more patients are suffering from breathlessness in this wave of infections, the centre has said.
The shortfall led to panicked SOSs from Delhi hospitals and to terrified relatives of patients running around to get oxygen cylinders on their own, often from the black market. Last week 12 people died at a private hospital after the oxygen ran out.
It also led to the Delhi government asking the Delhi High Court for relief, following which the Supreme Court took up the matter and ordered the centre to send 700 MT of oxygen per day.
The Supreme Court, this week, also ruled against the centre in a case involving Karnataka, which had asked for increased oxygen supply.
Apart from Delhi and Karnataka, other states have also flagged an oxygen issue; this week Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi with a warning.
The centre has insisted the oxygen crisis is a problem of transportation rather than supply. Last week it said there was enough medical oxygen and the challenge was moving it to high-demand areas.