MUMBAI: Even before it could begin its vaccination camp, Air India on Monday wrote to its employees saying that a camp proposed to be held on Tuesday and Thursday within Air India premises at IGIA-Delhi airport has been cancelled.
The reason? Government couldn’t procure vaccines for the camp.
“The proposed Covid vaccination camp at GSD complex, IGIA (Delhi airport) on May 11 and May 13 stands cancelled because government authorities have expressed inability to hold these camps due to non-availability of vaccines,’’ said the note.
“Fresh dates will be notified once we get reconfirmation from government authorities,’’ said the note sent by Dr Raja Saikia, senior assistant general manager-medical, GSD, Delhi.
Air India did not comment on the matter.
Another issue is that a number of its pilots, engineers, ground staff have already taken one shot of Covid vaccine and Air India might not be able to provide the second shot.
“Many of us have taken the Covishield vaccine first dose. That was the only vaccine available in most vaccination centres in cities like Delhi, Mumbai. But the Air India mail sent recently to its employees speaks only about Covaxin shots. So those who already took the first shot of Covishield have again been left to fend for themselves,’’ said a senior pilot.
“Since the airline front line staff have not been put on priority list by any state or central government, getting the second shot from the city’s vaccination centres will be difficult,’’ the pilot added.
In the past one month, as the Covid second wave sent infectivity and fatality figures on a steep rise across the country, pilots’ groups raised their concerns with the government.
The Federation of Indian Pilots, a registered association representing about 5000 commercial pilots in a letter sent to the cabinet secretary Rajiv Gauba on May 1 pointed out that “even ancillary staff such as central armed police personnel stationed at airports have all been vaccinated on priority and so have essential staff of other transport related sectors, such as the Indian Railways.” Even our professional counterparts, the pilots of the Indian armed forces, have also been vaccinated on priority, said the letter sent by Capt Surinder Mehta, president FIP.
“Essential supplies including vaccines, oxygen storage and generating equipment and evacuation operations are being flown on a regular basis by our member pilots. In spite of the above, commercial aircrew in India have been left out of the definition of Front-Line Workers (FLW) and therefore, have not been prioritised for Covid vaccination, leaving many to fend for themselves or wait for their turn as per the availability of vaccine stocks,” the letter said.
It is estimated that approximately 1200 vials of the vaccine are required to protect the majority of our commercial pilots and to secure our nation’s geo-strategic interests, the letter said.
“With the ever-increasing number of Covid cases, including fatalities, being reported amongst our aircrew this is becoming a race against time. It would be appreciated that replacing medically unfit pilots who are highly limited in number and highly specialised personnel may not be possible beyond a critical figure and may compromise or disrupt India’s aerial efforts to secure a global supply chain of essential medical supplies and connectivity between important destinations,’’ it said.
It was not the first time that FIP had raised this issue with the government. In a letter sent on April 8 to Rajesh Bhushan, secretary, ministry of health and family welfare, the association expressed its disappointment over the fact that commercial pilots had been left out of the FLW category for vaccination. “Many pilots have tested positive for Covid in the line of duty, whilst some have lost their lives or their loved ones…While many other categories of transport related workers such as Indian railway employees, and police personnel posted at airports, railway establishments have been categorised as Front Line Workers (FLW) for the purpose of being prioritised for the Covid vaccine, the commercial pilots of India have been let tout,’’ … “Not only does the exclusion of pilots from the category of FLW undermine the tremendous risks undertaken by our members and reflects a degree of apathy for the lives of pilots and their families..,” the letter said.
To be sure, the civil aviation ministry did send a letter to the state governments asking aviation employees to be recognised as front line workers for vaccination. “But why would any state government bother to follow through with that letter and take steps to vaccinate pilots, engineers, ground staff at a time when they are faced with acute shortage of vaccines.
To be sure, the civil aviation ministry had written to the union health ministry back in January itself asking for frontline workers in the aviation sector to be considered for the vaccines on a priority basis. Under the guidelines issued by the union health ministry on December 28 last year, the front line workers were to be vaccinated on priority. While the health ministry guideline identified armed forces, civic workers and others among front line staff, it left out aviation sector employees. The then ministry of civl aviation secretary, Pradeep Singh Kharola, in a letter sent on January 20 to the union health ministry secretary Rajesh Bhushan pointed out the need to put aviation sector frontline workers on the vaccination priority list. However it was to no avail.
A senior commander said : “The civil aviation ministry has failed in its duty towards aviation sector frontline staff. By merely writing a letter, they cannot wash their hands off. They should have followed this through and made it happen.”
Matters came to fore on May 4, when Capt T Praveen Keerthi, general secretary, Indian Commercial Pilots’ Association (ICPA) sent a letter to Capt R S Sandhu, Air India director (operations) threatening to stop work if the airline failed to set up vaccination camps across India so that flying crew both above and below the age of 45 years could get the life-saving jabs. “We are in no position to continue risking the lives of our pilots without vaccination…Many crew have been diagnosed COVID positive and are struggling to get oxygen cylinders. We are left to fend for ourselves for hospitalization..’’ the letter said.
The same day, Air India had announced that it would vaccination this week and by May end all of its employees, including pilots and cabin crew, will be vaccinated. Air India in a statement said that “since from May 1 all persons 18 years and above can be vaccinated, a schedule for vaccination is now being drawn up and it is expected to commence as early as next week and all employees will be vaccinated by end of this month that is May 2021.’’ The schedule is also being drawn up keeping in mind that crew who do not have fixed working days, said the statement adding that discussions were already on for the vaccination of all Air India employees, including the crew. “As the guidelines did not allow vaccination of persons below 45 years of age, Air India could not complete the vaccination,’’ the statement said.
A senior pilot said: “Didn’t Air India know about vaccine shortage across the country when it announced the vaccination camp last week. How is it that they have suddenly learnt about it now? Today, they have cancelled the vaccination camp at GSD, Delhi airport, tomorrow we might hear similar cancellations for other centres. Meanwhile, pilots continue to risk their lives to operate the Vande Bharat Mission flights and domestic flights to bring in stranded Indians and transport goods like vaccines, oxygen concentrators, medicines and other essentials critical to fight this pandemic.”