Amid Covid-19 cases skyrocketing in India and many states facing a shortage of oxygen cylinders, the Centre on Sunday announced its decision to ban the supply of Oxygen for industrial purposes except in nine specified areas and expedited installation of 162 PSA plants in health facilities across the country.
In a related development, the Railways announced special trains to transport the life-saving gas.
These developments come amid Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal claiming that the national capital is facing an "acute shortage" of oxygen for Covid-19 patients and alleged that the city's quota has been diverted to other states.
While Delhi on Sunday recorded the biggest jump in its daily Covid-19 tally with 25,462 fresh cases, India logged 2,61,500 coronavirus infections.
Amid these developments many industry majors pitched in by diverting oxygen supply to hospitals across the country.
Meanwhile, Union health minister Harsh Vardhan said all possible support is being extended to states to double production of Remdesivir drug, ensure uninterrupted supply of oxygen and Covid-19 vaccines, besides enhancing healthcare infrastructure.
The setting up of 162 pressure swing adsorption (PSA) oxygen plants in public health facilities is being expedited and a 24X7 cell is coordinating with the states, he said. "These will augment medical oxygen capacity by 154.19 MT," the health ministry said.
The PSA plants manufacture oxygen and help hospitals become self-sufficient in their requirement for medical oxygen, while also reducing the burden on the national grid for its supply of medical oxygen.
Earlier, the ministry had decided to float a tender for the import of 50,000 MT of medical oxygen.
In a communication to all states, Union Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla said the central government-constituted Empowered Group-II has recommended to prohibit the supply of oxygen for industrial purposes by manufacturers and suppliers from April 22 till further orders, with exceptions of nine specified industries.
He cited the rapid rise in Covid-19 cases and resultant rapid demand for medical oxygen, particularly in high-burden states of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh.
The Railways said it will run 'Oxygen Express' trains over the next few days to transport liquid medical oxygen and oxygen cylinders across the country.
"Since the first empty tankers will move on April 19, we hope to begin operations of Oxygen Express over the next few days. We would be able to send oxygen wherever there is such demand. A green corridor is being created for fast movement of Oxygen Express trains," an official said.
Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra governments had approached the Railways Ministry to explore whether liquid medical oxygen tankers could be moved by the rail network, officials said.
The country's largest steel-maker SAIL, Tata Steel and ArcelorMittal Nippon Steel India (AMNS India) said they were supplying oxygen to hospitals.
According to the steel ministry, 28 oxygen plants located in the steel facility of both public and private sectors are supplying about 1,500 tonnes of medical oxygen every day.
Also, an additional stock of 30,000 MT, including the safety stock, is being made available for medical use.
The positivity rate has doubled in the last 12 days to 16.69 percent and 10 states -- Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Kerala, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan -- reported 78.56 percent of the new infections, the health ministry said.
"Over 9,000 new coronavirus cases are emerging in Gujarat every day. Though we are adding new facilities and beds at regular intervals, it falls short against the demand as the inflow of coronavirus patients is much higher," Gujarat Deputy Chief Minister Nitin Patel told reporters at civil hospital campus in Ahmedabad.
As a long queue of ambulances with coronavirus patients waited outside the civil hospital, Patel said it is the government's obligation to save each and every patient turned away by other hospitals.
Maharashtra and Delhi, which are among the worst hit, have already sounded the Centre on the shortage of beds, oxygen, medicines and COVID vaccine.
At least six Covid-19 patients died in the ICU of a government hospital in Madhya Pradesh's Shahdol allegedly due to low pressure in the medical oxygen supply, according to a hospital official.
The incident occurred at the Government Medical College Hospital (GMCH) on the intervening night of Saturday and Sunday.However, the district administration denied that these deaths were caused due to the "shortage of oxygen".
Over 25,000 more people tested Covid-19 positive in the last 24 hours in the national capital and less than 100 ICU beds remain available in hospitals, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said, highlighting the grim situation.
Kejriwal said he spoke to Union Home Minister Amit Shah on Sunday morning and stressed the need for more beds for the COVID patients. He said he had requested the Centre to reserve at least 7,000 of 10,000 beds in hospitals run by it in Delhi as COVID beds and ensure immediate supply of oxygen.
Currently, only 1,800 of 10,000 central government hospital beds are reserved for COVID-19 patients, he said.
The Delhi government in the next 2-3 days will come up with 6,000 beds with oxygen facility at Yamuna Sports Complex, Radha Swami Satsang Beas premises and schools, Kejriwal said.
“In Delhi, we are now left with less than 100 ICU beds. We are falling short of oxygen as well," Kejriwal said.
The Northern Railways has deployed 50 isolation coaches, each having two oxygen cylinders, at Delhi's Shakur Basti railway station and 25 such facilities will be placed at Anand Vihar by Monday, General Manager Ashutosh Gangal said.
Similar facilities were being provided in Maharashtra and other states.
Engineering entrance exam JEE-Mains scheduled to be held from April 27-30 has been postponed in view of the Covid-19 situation, Union Education Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal 'Nishank' announced, days after the CBSE Class 10 Board exams were cancelled and Class 12 exams were deferred. Several state boards have subsequently postponed their exams.
The COVID crisis has prompted states to further tighten restrictions, besides imposing weekend lockdown.
Maharashtra Home Minister Dilip Walse Patil warned of action against those violating the restrictions imposed by the state government to contain the spread of Covid-19.
The state reported a new daily high of 68,631 Covid-19 cases on Sunday, while 503 deaths pushed the toll to 60,473.
The tough new measures, which exclude essential services, came into force on Wednesday night and will remain in force till 7 AM on May 1.
Section 144 of CrPC, prohibiting the assembly of five or more people at a spot, will remain in force during the period.
The Tamil Nadu government announced postponement of class 12 public examination, complete lockdown on Sundays and night curfew from 10 PM to 4 AM from April 20.
Registering a steady increase for the 39th day in a row, the active cases stand at 18,01,316, while the national Covid-19 recovery rate has dropped to 86.62 per cent, the union Health ministry said.
"The daily positivity rate in the last 12 days has doubled from 8 percent to 16.69 percent," the health ministry said in a statement. "The national weekly positivity rate has increased from 3.05 percent to 13.54 percent in the last one month."
Chhattisgarh reported the highest weekly positivity rate at 30.38 percent, followed by Goa at 24.24 percent, Maharashtra at 24.17 percent, Rajasthan at 23.33 percent and Madhya Pradesh at 18.99 percent, according to the ministry.
Five states -- Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala -- account for 65.02 percent of India's active cases.
The cumulative recoveries have surged to 1,28,09,643 after 1,38,423 more people recuperated.
Meanwhile, India took 92 days to reach the mark of 12-crore vaccinations, the fastest country to do so.
It is followed by the US which took 97 days and China which took 108 days.
Vardhan said there will be a 10 times rise in Covaxin vaccine production by September while manufacture of remdesivir jabs, an anti-viral drug against COVID-19, will be doubled to 74.1 lakh each month by May.
"The four states - Gujarat (1,03,37,448), Maharashtra (1,21,39,453), Rajasthan (1,06,98,771) and UP (1,07,12,739) - have so far administered more than 1 crore doses each to their population. Gujarat completed 1 crore vaccinations on April 16 while the other three states achieved it on April 14," the ministry said.
(With PTI inputs)