Centre promise dedicated helpline for health workers involved in battle against COVID-19

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In a huge relief to healthcare workers involved in the battle against COVID-19 without adequate protection and safety, the Central government has agreed to set up a dedicated helpline to address the problems faced by them. 

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta conveyed the Centre’s decision in this regard to the Supreme while hearing a plea filed by a Kerala-based nurses' association raising questions on government efforts to protect the medical personnel engaged in treating coronavirus parients.

A three-judge Bench of Justices NV Ramana, Sanjay Kishan Kaul and BR Gavai disposed of the plea after the Solicitor General assured the Court that a dedicated helpline number would be put in place for medical staff.

Mehta stated that the helpline number could be used to address concerns raised by healthcare workers regarding non-availability of Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs), salary cuts, eviction by house owners, etc. He also stated that any grievance raised over the helpline will be addressed within a span of two hours.

The nurses' body had approached the Supreme Court saying that the government has not formulated a National Management Protocol for COVID-19 to address the serious concerns relating to imminent and extreme risks posed to the health and safety of medical personnel across the country.

Noting that the pandemic is seeing a “persisting and ever escalating spread”, the United Nurses Association, represented by Advocates Subhash Chandran and Biju P Raman, pointed out that nurses and health workers are ill-equipped and exposed to various hazards including pathogen exposure, long working hours, psychological distress, fatigue, occupational burnout, stigma, and physical and psychological violence etc.

Some of the issues faced by the frontline COVID-19 warriors include lack of availability or sub-standard PPEs in numerous hospitals, non-availability of sufficient number of COVID-19 testing kits, lack of training on infection prevention and control, and lack of basic facilities in isolation wards.

Added to these were allegations of mental harassment in the nature of forced overtime, negligible transport facilities, deduction of salary on account of leaves, and health workers who are pregnant, lactating or with a weak immune system being forced to work.

The association had also urged the Court to direct the government to expand the scope of personal accident cover provided under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Package for health workers fighting COVID-19. This cover was prayed to be extended to all healthcare workers across sectors, including those recruited on an ad hoc basis (with inputs from Bar & Bench)

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