The Office of the Ombudsman is issuing subpoenas to Health Secretary Francisco Duque III and Budget Secretary Wendel Avisado for documents detailing where funds for the COVID-19 response went.
In an interview on CNN Philippines, Ombudsman Samuel Martires said they were particularly interested in the special allotment release orders for cash benefits given to the families of front liners who got infected with the virus and died in the line of duty.
“We want to know where the money was spent, how long it took to provide aid to the families of front liners who died after they were inflicted with the virus… Where’s the money and where did it go?” Martires told CNN in Filipino.
Budget officials said they have already sent the requested documents.
As of June 9, the government has spent P354 billion on the effort to contain COVID-19.
Two weeks ago, President Rodrigo Duterte scolded Health officials for the slow release of compensation to the families of health workers who were sick or died of COVID-19. The delays in the release of the benefits sparked calls for Duque’s resignation in the Senate.
Senate President Vicente Sotto III said Friday he has grown tired of calling on Duque to take a leave while he is under investigation.
“I’m tired of giving comments regarding Secretary Duque,” said Sotto when asked if Duque should take a leave pending the Ombudsman investigation over the DOH’s alleged irregularities and anomalies in relation to the agency’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sotto was among the senators who signed a Senate resolution calling for Duque to resign.
Senator Francis Pangilinan on Friday repeated that call, given the slow response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the blunders committed by Duque.
“While failure and corruption are tolerated, what can we expect from those in charge when it comes to an effective campaign against COVID-19?” he said in Filipino.
Senator Sherwin Gatchalian also supported the call of Sotto for Duque to take a leave of absence to avoid influencing the investigation.
He said Duque lacks the foresight necessary to battle the pandemic. He said the government is not acting fast enough in addressing the health emergency, noting that it has been three months since the government started to implement strict quarantine protocols.
“In the Bayanihan Act, we gave them flexibility, we gave DOH the flexibility to procure anything they want without bidding. But they must ensure that their purchases are at the right amount and reasonable,” Gatchalian said.
It would not be a big loss in the government’s fight against COVID-19 if Duque were to take a leave of absence, he added, saying that there are many capable undersecretaries who may step in and do his job while he’s on leave.
But the DOH said Friday there was no need for Duque to resign or take a leave.
“We have our full support for the secretary and we still think that he should be retained dito sa kanyang posisyon,” Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said.
Vergeire said Duque was highly regarded by the DOH workforce and he should not be removed amid the health crisis.
Vergeire acknowledged, however, that Health officials and personnel were “affected” by the Ombudsman’s investigation.
“Of course, in this kind of an investigation, especially from the Ombudsman, will affect our staff who are working hard,” she said in Filipino. “We are really doing our best.”
Vergeire said that the Ombudsman’s motu proprio investigation took them by surprise.
“Our office is open to this kind of an investigation and we will cooperate with them if this pushes through,” she added.
Vergeire, meanwhile, denied that the DOH is submitting inaccurate and dated data to the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases, the government’s policy-making body in addressing the COVID-19 problem.
“We want to make clear that the Inter-Agency Task Force bases its decisions on accurate and on-time data,” she said.
She also said the DOH has taken steps, including partnering with private sector groups and hiring more encoders, to ensure timely and accurate data processing.
Meanwhile, the Palace brushed aside a suggestion from former senator Antonio Trillanes IV that the government put Vice President Leni Robredo in charge of the IATF.
In a statement, presidential spokesman Harry Roque said there was no need to appoint Robredo because she is already helping in the fight against COVID-19 in her own way.
Trillanes, in issuing the challenge, was reacting to Roque’s statement that instead of just criticizing the government, Robredo should offer solutions to the COVID-19 problem.
“Let us not make an issue when there is none,” Roque said. “My remarks that Vice President Leni Robredo could have offered solutions is simply a response to a specific question by the media,” Roque said Friday.
He said his remark did not mean the Palace was diminishing Robredo’s efforts to help those affected by the pandemic.
Also on Friday, the Philippine Red Cross opened its bio-molecular laboratory in Clark.
PRC Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Senator Richard J. Gordon, said the laboratory, which was built in partnership with the Bases Conversion and Development Authority (BCDA), is now up and ready to run after it passed the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine’s (RITM) proficiency test last week and was accredited as a certified COVID-19 testing center.
“Our molecular laboratory in Clark is equipped with polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machines that are capable of testing 2,000 samples per day, which will enable us to run an overall total of 16,000 tests a day since we are also opening our laboratory in Subic. This will really help us as we ramp up our testing capacity so that more people will get tested all over the country,” Gordon said.