India is offering free vaccines to all adults as it eases lockdown in several states following a steady fall in cases.
“It has been decided that from 21 June all adults over the age of 18 will be vaccinated free,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi told a televised address on Monday.
The new policy means the federal government will take over India‘s vaccine rollout, which has been widely criticised for being too slow amid the recent deadly wave of cases.
It comes as several states ease their COVID restrictions after the country recorded its lowest number of infections in two months.
Shops, restaurants and other businesses are allowed to reopen with limited hours in New Delhi and Mumbai, with some restrictions also lifted in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana.
The Delhi metro, which serves the city and surrounding areas, has reopened at 50% capacity, but Mumbai’s state rail network remains closed.
Coronavirus infections peaked at around 400,000 a day in May after a devastating wave hit India at the start of April.
But on Monday, the number of new COVD cases was the lowest it has been for two months – with 100,636 reported in the past 24 hours.
Despite recorded infections steadily declining, experts fear the virus is spreading unchecked through India’s rural areas – where the majority of its people live.
India is still second to the US in terms of total cases globally – with almost 29 million – but a lack of testing facilities and hospital capacity mean that figure is thought to be a vast underestimate.
The country’s health ministry said 2,427 new deaths were registered in the latest 24-hour period on Monday, taking the total to 349,186.
So far 222 million COVID-19 jabs have been given out across India – with less than 5% of its 1.39 billion population fully vaccinated.
Before his address on Monday, Mr Modi was under mounting pressure over the rollout, which previously only offered free jabs to the over-45s and frontline workers.
He has also been widely criticised for the £1.27bn redevelopment of New Delhi’s historical centre, which includes a new 15-acre residence for him.
Recently MP Rahul Gandhi tweeted to say the cost of the Central Vista project was equivalent to 450 million vaccines or 10 million oxygen cylinders.
Under the old vaccine system, anyone under 45 who was not a frontline worker had to pay for their jab at a private hospital unless they could get state funding.
India has just ordered 300 million doses of an unlicensed vaccine made by an Indian company called Biological E in a bid to boost supplies.
The jab is still in phase three trials, but previous ones have shown encouraging results.
Last month the UK sent 1,000 ventilators to India as cases spiralled out of control, families begged for oxygen equipment and officials struggled to deal with the number of dead.
The Delta variant, a double mutation of the virus that originated in India, has left health systems overwhelmed.
Meanwhile politicians have focused on trying to the save the economy, with New Delhi’s chief minister Arvind Kejriwal saying on Monday: “Now the corona situation is under control. The economy must be brought back on track.”
But other states are being more cautious when it comes to restrictions, with the southern states of Jammu and Kashmir and Tamil Nadu extending their lockdowns for at least another week.
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