The Supreme Court on Wednesday suggested that the Centre should create a mechanism wherein private laboratories conducting COVID-19 tests do not charge exorbitant fees from the public and the government should reimburse the fees charged by labs.
A bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan and S Ravindra Bhat was told by the Centre that earlier 15,000 tests were conducted per day by 118 labs and later to enhance the capacity, 47 private labs were allowed to conduct the COVID-19 tests.
The top court was hearing a plea filed by advocate Shashank Deo Sudhi seeking a direction to the Centre and authorities to provide free of cost testing facility for COVID-19 to all citizens in the country.
Shashank Deo Sudhi told the bench that there should be free testing of COVID-19 by labs in the country as it is expensive.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Centre, said it is a developing situation and the government at this juncture does not know how many laboratories will be needed and how long the ongoing lockdown will continue.
To this, the bench suggested that the Centre should ensure that private laboratories do not charge a high amount and the government should create a mechanism for reimbursement of the fees charged for the tests.
Tushar Mehta said he would like to take instructions on this front after which the bench said it would pass orders in the matter.
On April 3, the top court had sought response from the Centre and other authorities on the plea filed by Shashank Deo Sudhi.
The petitioner has also sought a direction to the authorities for ramping up the testing facilities for COVID-19 at the earliest "given the escalating mortality and morbidity rate across the country".
The petition has questioned the March 17 advisory of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) which capped Rs 4,500 for testing of COVID-19 in private hospitals or labs, including screening and confirmatory tests.
"It is extremely difficult for the common citizen to get himself/herself tested in the government hospital /labs and being no alternative in the sight, the people are constrained to pay the capped amount to the private hospital/labs for protecting their lives," it said.
The plea said the impending danger of coronavirus is extremely serious, given the deprived population of the country, and testing is the only way to contain the pandemic. It alleged that authorities are "completely insensitive and indifferent" to the plight of common citizens who are already financially burdened on account of complete lockdown across the country.
"Further, the capping of the prices of the testing facility of COVID-19 in private hospitals/labs strikes at the Article 14 of the Constitution of India as being arbitrary and unreasonable," it said and urged that the March 17 advisory be declared arbitrary.
It also sought a direction for ensuring that all tests relating to COVID-19 are conducted under the National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories (NABL) or ICMR accredited pathological labs.
It said ICMR should be directed to hold regular news briefings through national TV channels about the current situation on coronavirus and precautions to be taken by the citizens.
The plea also said that authorities must ensure adequate numbers of testing kits and centers for COVID-19 across the country.