At least 14 senators on Thursday demanded the resignation of Health Secretary Francisco Duque III, citing his failure to adequately address the COVID-19 pandemic, with the Philippines now having the highest number of confirmed cases in Southeast Asia.
In a resolution, the senators called on Duque to step down “for his failure of leadership, negligence, lack of foresight, and inefficiency in the performance of his mandate” as the country continues to grapple with the contagion.
Duque’s shortcomings resulted in “poor planning, delayed response, lack of transparency, and misguided and flip-flopping policies” for COVID-19.
Only 13 of the 14 senators signed the resolution: Senate President Vicente Sotto III, Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri, Senators Juan Edgardo Angara, Nancy Binay, Sherwin Gatchalian, Grace Poe, Joel Villanueva, Francis Tolentino, Imee Marcos, Ronald dela Rosa, Bong Revilla, Manny Pacquiao, Lito Lapid, and Panfilo Lacson.
Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto, a co-author, was not able to sign the resolution.
Duque, in a statement, said he would answer the allegations raised against him in due time, but for now, he will continue to be in the trenches with health care workers and frontliners.
Despite all the challenges and limited resources, he said the Health department is making sure that «we, as a nation have a fighting chance against COVID-19.»
«This is not a fight of one man or of one agency, it is a fight for all of us Filipinos,» he added, as he called on everyone to help each other. «I will continue to serve the country to the best of my abilities.”
The DOH chief said he respects the opinions of the senators.
«But this I have to say–I serve at the pleasure of the President and for as long as he continues to put his trust and confidence in my capabilities, I will lead the DOH and IATF in putting forward a very effective response against COVID-19 in this country.»
«It is very unfortunate and I am really hurt that the Senate is calling for my resignation when it is time for us to come together. We need to unite when we have such a formidable enemy.»
The senators said instead of providing enlightening view points on the problems and challenges confronting the country in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic, Duque showed lack of competence, efficiency and foresight bordering on negligence in handling the health crisis.
Due to the DOH›s improper advice and manner of handling the pandemic, the senators said, the country is expected to experience more trouble in the coming weeks.
The senators assailed the DOH›s lack of foresight in recommending in a timely manner the banning of flights to and from China, the lack of coordination with the aviation authorities; and failure to alert the medical community and the public that there were already patients admitted in health facilities exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms in the previous months.
To their call on Jan. 28 call for a travel ban on visitors from COVID epicenter Wuhan and other parts of China, the senators said Duque publicly opposed a total travel ban saying there were diplomatic repercussions, showing he put the interests of China ahead of the health of Filipinos.
At the same hearing, they said Duque was oblivious to the escalating health crisis.
«He revealed his incompetence as he was unaware that only 17-percent contact tracing of the first confirmed [Jan. 30] COVID positive patient was done and he was also unaware that 31 of the reported 80 PUIs came from Wuhan. DOH failed to do contact tracing of the 31 PUIs, as well as the first confirmed COVID case who arrived on Jan. 21. All these failures led to the spread of the disease,» the senators said.
They also chided Duque for DOH›s failure to stockpile PCR-based test kits to make these available to more Filipinos, to provide adequate personal protective equipment for health care workers and to expeditiously act in facilitating the accreditation of testing centers.
«The Philippines has earned the lowest mark among Asia-Pacific countries… based on a study that evaluated the crisis performance of 150 countries and territories,» the resolution said.
Duque failed to put in place the necessary precautionary measures to lessen, if not prevent the impact of this health crisis, the senators said.
Because of these, the senators pushed for Duque’s immediate resignation, saying he continues to endanger the lives of health care workers, other frontliners and the Filipino people.
Lacson said they all agreed not to recommend any replacement, but leave that up to the President.
"We are simply for a competent Secretary of Health. Take note: Not more competent, but simply a competent one at the helm," Lacson said.
"Having said that, the resolution does not involve the President. It is virtually an appeal–demand, if you will–to Secretary Duque to resign… It is his call," Lacson added.
Angara added: "We were late for testing, contact tracing is almost non-existent, hospitals are short of protective gear — we need to be better. The lives of Filipinos are at stake.”
While Senator Francis Pangilinan did not sign the resolution, he said he supports it.
Others who did not sign the resolution were Senators Christopher Go, chairman of the Senate health committee; Richard Gordon, also current chairman of the Philippine Red Cross, Cynthia Villar; Aquilino Pimentel III; Pia Cayetano, Minority Leader Senator Franklin Drilon; Risa Hontiveros and Leila de Lima.
Despite the Senate resolution, the Palace said the President was not inclined to let Duque go.
“The President has made a decision for Health Secretary Duque to stay put. He also expressed his appreciation for the senators’ gesture in giving him the opportunity to weigh his options on the performance [of his secretary of Health],” Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea said.