An Empowered Groups of Officers set up by the Centre to manage the COVID-19 reponse and the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Health had flagged medical oxygen as an issue that needed attention as far back as April and November, 2020, respectively.
According to a report in The Indian Express, the Empowered Group-VI (EG-VI) had first warned of oxygen shortage on April 1, 2020, about a week after India was faced with a nation-wide lockdown.
The report says the group of officers were co-ordinating with NGOs, members of the private sector and international organisations to come up with an effective response to the COVID-19 pandemic. "In the coming days India could face a shortage of oxygen supplies. To address this, CII (Confederation of Indian Industry) will coordinate with Indian Gas Association and mitigate the lack of oxygen supply," the minutes of the meeting reportedly said.
The meeting is said to have been headed by NITI Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant, with other senior officials, including Principal Scientific Adviser K. Vijay Raghavan, in attendance. An official present at the meeting told the newspaper it was decided that the Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade (DPIIT) would "look into the issue of Oxygen Supply."
Four days after this meeting a nine-member committee was formed under DPIIT Secretary Guruprasad Mohapatra to "ensure adequate availability of medical oxygen in the wake of Covid-19 pandemic."
The demand for medical oxygen had reportedly risen from 1,000 metric tonnes in the pre-pandemic days to about 3,000 MT on September 24-25. There seemed to be no cause for concern then, however, as the country was producing about 6,900 MT at the time.
In November that year the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Health also referred to the “availability as well as affordability” of medical oxygen as an issue and had told the government to “encourage adequate production of Oxygen for ensuring its supply as per demand in the hospitals.” The Committee reportedly asked the health ministry to ensure that oxygen cylinders were supplied with "appropriate price caps".
However, as the country deals with over three lakh COVID-19 cases on a daily basis at the moment, the shortage of medical oxygen is resulting in precarious situations in hospitals across the country, even in the national capital.
With hospitals knocking on the Delhi High Court's door with only hours worth of oxygen supply left, the court on Thursday observed that the COVID-19 situation in the national capital had turned “precarious” with many hospitals running out of oxygen. It directed the Centre to ensure the gas is supplied to the city as per the planned allocation and without any hindrances. "We all know that this country is being run by god," observed an anguish bench of Justices Vipin Sanghi and Rekha Palli.
Several small hospitals in the city struggled to replenish oxygen supply for COVID-19 patients on Thursday morning, even as some big healthcare facilities received fresh stock overnight. The administration at Shanti Mukund Hospital, a 200-bed facility in East Delhi, put up a notice at the entry gate, reading: "We regret we are stopping admission in hospital because oxygen supply isn't coming." Officials at Saroj Hospital in Rohini had said they had run out of oxygen supply.
Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia had alleged that the Uttar Pradesh and Haryana police were blocking oxygen transport to Delhi, and urged the Centre to ensure normal supply even if that meant taking the help of paramilitary forces.
The Supreme Court on Thursday told the Centre that it wanted a “national plan” on issues including supply of oxygen and essential drugs for treatment of patients infected with the virus.
With PTI Inputs