Senate President Vicente Sotto III acknowledged Sunday that Monday’s hearing on the government’s COVID-19 vaccination plan could stray into the controversy over the early and unauthorized inoculation of members of the Presidential Security Group (PSG), despite a warning from President Duterte to stay away from the topic.
“No need for me to prevent it. I will bring it to the body, to the floor, to the senators,” Sotto said in an interview over radio dzZBB Sunday.
“If the majority said yes, I can’t do anything about it. We will follow, but seriously, I doubt it that it (the hearing) will be diverted,” Sotto said.
Sotto said the hearing had been called to inquire into the government’s vaccination roadmap after Congress allocated P72.5 billion to buy the vaccines.
President Rodrigo Duterte has told the PSG not to answer questions about how they vaccinated themselves against COVID-19 as early as September, using an unauthorized vaccine.
The PSG commander has refused to say how many of the President’s bodyguards have been vaccinated or who provided the vaccines, said to have come from the Chinese company Sinopharm.
But Sotto made a pitch for keeping the focus on the vaccination roadmap.
“Why is there a need to focus on these soldiers? They didn’t use government funds nor public funds,” said Sotto.
Several opposition senators have called for an investigation into the case, saying the use of an unauthorized vaccine violated the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Act and went against the stated government policy of inoculating health care workers and the elderly first.
Sotto said, however, that any pronouncement made by a few senators on investigating the PSG does not reflect the stand of the whole Senate.
“If there is [sic] one or two senators who said that, that’s not the whole Senate,” he said.
Senator Francis Pangilinan said the hearings are intended to clarify the government vaccination plan and targets.
Invited to attend the hearing requested by Pangilinan are: Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr., vaccine czar; Dr. Rabindra Abeyasinghe from the World Health Organization; Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles; Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, chairman of Covid-19 National Task Force; Health Secretary Francisco Duque III; Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez; Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr.; Budget Secretary Wendel Avisado; Budget Undersecretary for Procurement Service Lloyd Christopher Lao; Science Secretary Fortunato De La Peña, Interior and Local Government Secretary Eduardo Año; Secretary Vivencio Dizon, testing czar and deputy chief implementer of the Inter-Agency Task Force for Managing Emerging Diseases (IATF); and Food and Drug Administration Director General Ronaldo Domingo.
Invited medical experts from the private sector are: Dr. Benito Atienza, president of the Philippine Medical Association; Rosie De Leon, RN, national president of the Philippine Nurses Association; and Mr. Rommel Saceda, RMT, president of the Philippine Association of Medical Technologists Inc.
Pangilinan said the hearing will give Filipinos a clear picture of the government’s roadmap to obtain the vaccines and the resources needed to secure doses for the people.
The government’s total budget for the COVID-19 vaccination program is P82.5 billion, with P72.5 billion from the 2021 General Appropriations Act and P10 billion from Republic Act 11494 or Bayanihan to Recover as One Act (Bayanihan 2).
At the same time, various local government units (LGUs) as well as business conglomerates have started to allocate budgets for the procurement of vaccines for their constituents.
The Department of Health said the top priority for vaccination are frontline health workers both in the public and private sectors, senior citizens, and impoverished Filipinos.
The country’s ambassador to the United States on Sunday said the country’s embassy in Washington is working with other government agencies to have the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines delivered to the Philippines as early as April this year.
Philippine Ambassador to the US Jose Manuel Romualdez said that due to the delay in the procurement process for the Pfizer vaccine, the expected delivery to the Philippines has been moved to mid-2021.
However, Romualdez expressed optimism that delivery could be sooner.
Meanwhile, Senator Christopher Go, chairman of the Senate committee on health, urged the government to boost public confidence in COVID-19 vaccines by communicating sufficiently and clearly about its vaccination roadmap. He said an informed citizenry will also be empowered through the right information to contribute to efforts to overcome the pandemic.
Senator Panfilo M. Lacson said frontliners who have risked their lives amid the ongoing pandemic deserve to know the details of the government's overall vaccination plan - if there is one,
Lacson said this is one of the points he will pursue when the Senate Committee of the Whole holds its first hearing on the matter on Monday.
"Do we have a clear vaccination plan? Based on our conversations with doctors and frontliners, it appears we don't. But frontliners are waiting to know when they would be prioritized in the vaccination program," he said in an interview on radio dzBB.
Senator Joel Villanueva reiterated the need to include workers in the government’s vaccination program, particularly those earning minimum wage, saying the ability to sustain the country’s economic recovery relies heavily on inoculating those providing essential services to the public.