New Delhi: Amid the rising number of Covid-19 cases, the Department of Financial Services (DFS) under the Ministry of Finance has requested the Union Home and Health Ministries to enable Covid-19 vaccination on a priority basis to all banking staff, irrespective of their age. In a letter to the ministries of Home, and Health and family welfare, the Finance Ministry urged that vaccination be provided to “frontline” employees.

“They are on the frontline and deal with customers and critical infrastructure for seamless banking and payment system,” the Department of Financial Services said in its letter. As per the current orders, only Covid-19 vaccination is available for those above 45 years of age.

Rahul Mishra, General Secretary, We Bankers Officers Association, told The Sunday Guardian: “Indian PSU banks and bankers are the ones who performed important actions as socio-economic anchors even during the recession and economic slowdown. Yet bankers are the most ignored and unsung heroes. It took one year for DFS to declare bankers as front line Covid warriors. Like doctors, safaikarmis, bankers, too, discharged duty during lockdown without any safety gears, unlike doctors. Direct cash transactions with the public expose bankers to more risks. Many bankers have lost lives during the last one year in the Covid-19 pandemic while serving the public. So it is very much needed to put bankers on the vaccination priority list, keeping in view the rapid outbreak of the second wave of Covid-19. The risk is more as we are dealing with the public directly; so they are also at risk.”

Out of the total strength of 13.5 lakh employees in the banking sector, about 600 deaths due to Covid-19 were recorded, as per the Indian Banks’ Association (IBA) data. The IBA had also written a letter in February addressed to Secretary, Health and Family Welfare, for inclusion of bank employees for vaccination on a priority basis, given their important role in the economy.

“Public banks are already working understaffed in comparison to private banks, and if this pandemic situation gets worse, banks don’t have a better plan for branch functioning. If branches don’t operate and serve smoothly, our economic activities will be affected and consumer services will be affected too. Banks have more footfall than other public offices. So bankers need to be vaccinated so that they don’t act like super spreaders even when we are taking all the precautions. Vaccination started in India from 16 January onwards, it has been three months already; if bankers are not declared Corona Warriors and frontline workers and they are not prioritized now, it means it’s a total mismanagement of the government’s vaccination programme. It’s a public health situation, we don’t have much to say if ministries don’t listen,” a bank employee said.

“Since the lockdown, we are working continuously and providing banking services and implementing government schemes seamlessly. I was also Covid positive and though I didn’t fully recover, I joined my duties and kept on working hard,” another bank employee said.

In its communication, the DFS has also highlighted that the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs on management of Covid-19 pandemic had in their 229th report appreciated the efforts taken by the banking sector for providing uninterrupted banking facilities during the Covid-19 outbreak and the consequent lockdown. The committee applauded the “good work” done by the banking sector and called the bankers “Covid-19 warriors”. The DFS has also received representations from the IBA, HDFC Bank, and NPCI on the issue.

“Their effort was even more important because of the disbursal and withdrawal of benefits transferred by the government to beneficiaries under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana (PMGKY) and bank employees ensured that beneficiaries did not face any difficulties in withdrawing their benefits,” it said.

Meanwhile, several banks have announced that they will reimburse the cost of vaccination incurred by their employees who are above 45 years of age and suffering from co-morbidities. The State Bank of India (SBI), Central Bank of India (CBI), Canara Bank, Federal Bank, among others, have taken various initiatives to ensure that their employees get the vaccines.

The Sunday Guardian tried to reach out to Debasish Panda, Secretary, Department of Financial Services, for comments, but didn’t receive any response till the story went to press.