Home SMARTPHONE How India Inc is gearing up to immunise staff

How India Inc is gearing up to immunise staff

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How India Inc is gearing up to immunise staff

As India gets ready to roll out Covid-19 vaccination for health workers from January 16, the next question is: when will a worker on the shop floor or an executive at the front desk of a hotel get their shots? Neither of them will be in the priority group identified by the government. Yet, both of them play a critical role in India regaining its economic momentum.

So far the government has been quiet on this particular aspect. It has only spelt out the modalities of vaccinating about 300 million Indians — of them, about 30 million health and other frontline workers will get the jab first and free of cost. The government has not said anything about the sale of vaccines on the open market even as it has clarified that manufacturers are free to export the doses.

Against the backdrop of this confusion, even opacity, corporate India is gearing up to immunise its employees. Some CEOs have said in unequivocal terms that there is no need for the government to bear the cost of vaccinating their employees. While most companies are waiting to hear from the government on the rules regarding bulk purchase of Covid-19 vaccines, a few have indeed started exploratory talks with manufacturers.

“We have already galvanised ourselves to see how we can get vaccines from manufacturers. Once the formalities are clear, we will proceed further,” RPG Group Chairman Harsh Goenka told ET Magazine, adding that the government should create a framework for companies to purchase in bulk. He says his company is keen to help its employees and possibly their family members get the jabs.

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ITC Ltd, another large company with presence in FMCG and hotels, has also been in touch with vaccine manufacturers. “We have approached vaccine manufactures and are in exploratory talks,” says Amitav Mukherji, ITC’s head of corporate human resources. “As progressive employers, we would certainly like to extend the vaccination to employees and we are intending to purchase it once it is commercially available and as per any government guidelines on the matter,” he adds.

The first movers in India Inc would succeed in procuring stocks as soon as the government allows the sale in the private market. In recent media interactions, Adar Poonawalla, chief executive officer of Serum Institute of India, has said the price of a dose of its vaccine in the open market will be about Rs 1,000 — four to five times higher than the price being negotiated for supplies to the government. One person would need two doses, amounting to Rs 2,000. Clearly, it is the sale of vaccines in the private market that will fetch profits to the manufacturers, who had gambled early on by producing and stocking millions of doses even before the efficacy of the vaccines was established. Serum Institute’s Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine called Covishield and Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin are the two jabs that have so far received Indian regulators’ go-ahead for restricted emergency use.

While the first round of vaccination is likely to be handled entirely by the public healthcare system, everyone is keenly awaiting government guidelines on the next phase of rollout, which could see the involvement of the private sector. Largescale vaccination is the only effective way to clamp down on the spread of the virus, prevent further disruptions to life and economy and hasten a return to normalcy. And there are many who argue that corporate India can play a significant role in speeding up large-scale immunisation.

Biocon Chairperson Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw says India needs to adopt a flexible approach in its immunisation plan to enable a rapid scaling up of the process. Confining the rollout to a stratified population, she says, would slow down the process as has been the case in many countries. “There could be a split between the supply for the public sector and the private sector in a particular ratio, which could be adjusted according to the progress,” she suggests.

An approach like this could enable the private sector to conduct a parallel vaccination drive for its employees, which would help keep the wheels of the economy turning. “In all the manufacturing facilities where you have large number of workers working in close proximity, we have suffered, because every time a case was detected, that entire section had to be closed for at least a few days,” Mazumdar-Shaw adds.

Montek Singh Ahluwalia, former deputy chairman of the erstwhile Planning Commission, expressed similar sentiments in a column in Mint in December: “Private companies may be willing to vaccinate their workforce at their own expense, perhaps including even their families. If they can procure the vaccine from the market, they should be allowed to do so, reducing the burden on the government. They should be allowed to use CSR funds for this purpose.”

Global Dose (Data as on Jan 6, 2021)

TOTAL SHOTS GIVEN: 15 million+ in 35 countries

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An HUL spokesperson told ET Magazine that the company will be working through the guidelines issued by the government. The hotels and hospitality industry, which has been among the worst hit by the pandemic, knows that an early and successful vaccine rollout among its employees and clients will be key to its recovery. Says National Restaurant Association of India President Anurag Katriar: “We have discussed it internally but first we want to see what the government’s plan is because we have been hearing many things.

If the government is going to control the vaccine administration, we will have a limited role to play.” He adds, “We all know the virus is on the wane now but the fear of the virus is there. Vaccination will rebuild confidence.” When priority categories were first identified in November, some within the government had in fact argued in favour of including frontline economic workers, particularly of severely hit sectors such as tourism and hospitality, according to a NITI Aayog official, who requested not to be named. But then the question arose as to why the government should pay to vaccinate a highly paid executive, say, of a five-star hotel chain? However, another idea is gaining currency at the moment — to allow private companies to vaccinate their employees by using their corporate social responsibility fund, the official adds.

Even as everyone is waiting for clarity from the government, some companies have kick-started internal discussions and preparations. “At IT services companies, there are plans to repurpose their budget for wellness and medical checkups for vaccination. It is already being used for the Covid testing of executives,” says Kamal Karanth, cofounder of staffing solutions company Xpheno.

Companies are reaching out to law firms and consultancies for advice on the rollout. “Companies are preparing, doing their own research and looking at what is feasible. There are also questions about whether vaccinating employees can be considered under CSR,” says Anshul Prakash, partner (employment, labour & benefits practice) at the law firm Khaitan & Co, which has been advising companies in manufacturing and services sectors. Prakash says companies are considering offering employees free transport facilities to vaccination centres and coverage for medical assistance in case of mild side-effects. If there are vaccination drives on campus, companies would also like to offer free blood tests to check if employees have any co-morbidity. “They will also offer vaccination for family members,” he adds.

Biocon, for example, is planning to offer vaccination to employees and family members at its own cost, once that option is available. “We are telling our employees that as soon as we are allowed to vaccinate, we will vaccinate them and the family members they are staying with,” says Mazumdar-Shaw. She estimates that for 12,000 employees and their family members, the company will need about one lakh doses of vaccine.

HR and management consultants say enlightened employers would be interested in procuring vaccines. “It’s going to be the new version of helping employees move their desktops home — the next big operational challenge,” says Abhijit Bhaduri, management consultant and executive coach to corporate leaders. He expects procuring the vaccines will be a benefit that many companies would like to extend to their employees.

Globally, too, some companies have come forward, encouraging their employees to get vaccinated. Although vaccination in Israel is not mandatory, Haaretz reports that some workplaces have announced benefits for workers who have got themselves vaccinated. In the US, Ford Motor Co has ordered ultra-cold freezers for vaccine distribution among its employees, to be available on a voluntary basis.

Unlike in the US, where companies can make vaccination mandatory for employees, there is no such provision under Indian law, unless the government issues specific guidelines, says Prakash of Khaitan & Co. During the lockdown, employers were told that if they had to bring in critical support staff to workplaces, they should download the Aarogya Setu app on their phones. “Something similar under the Disaster Management Act may come in, but right now it’s premature to think along those lines,” he adds.

India Inc seems inclined to pitch in to vaccinate its employees, from shop floors to front desks. For, that is the first step towards a business bounceback. The ball is now in the government’s court.

Govt should create a framework for companies to purchase vaccine in bulk: Harsh Goenka

Harsh Goenka, chairman of RPG Group, says government should not fund the vaccination of people who can afford it. In an email interview with Shantanu Nandan Sharma, he says his company is keen to vaccinate its employees. Edited excerpts:

Shouldn’t workers in manufacturing facilities as well as frontline staff in services sector be administered Covid vaccine on a priority basis?

The current priority group is estimated to be around 300 million. This is based on protecting those who belong to a higher risk profile such as healthcare and essential frontline workers who have been at the forefront of the fight against pandemic since it began, as well as those with co-morbidities and people of older age profile. Hence, in India we will have to resort to multiple phasing to manage the capacities adequately. The engine of growth is, of course, manufacturing and services sectors and it is essential that they are also administered in the next phase.

How should corporate India ensure their employees get vaccinated?

In order to ease the burden on governments, it would be the right thing if companies are able to access the vaccine immediately after the priority vaccinations are done. Also, government funding should not go for people and corporates who can afford it. It should be the duty of every organisation to have employees vaccinated to ensure business continuity and also as an expression of their care. It will very soon become a necessity for more and more companies to join in the effort. At present there is lack of clarity as to how companies can go about it. The government should create a framework for corporates to purchase in bulk. Moreover, a big logistical exercise will be required to monitor and execute it. Hence the question to address is how it should be dovetailed into the government programme — and that should be thought of right away.

What about the plan to vaccinate your own employees?

We are very keen to help our employees and maybe their families whereby we can get them vaccinated. We have already galvanised ourselves to see how we can get vaccines from manufacturers. Once the formalities are clear, we will proceed further. I also believe that it is necessary to empower companies to help with the vaccination to ease the burden on governments.

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