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Health chief urged to go on leave amid probe

05:40 AM June 19, 2020

Health Secretary Francisco Duque III should go on leave while the Office of the Ombudsman is investigating him to ensure that he would not be able to influence the probe, Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian said on Thursday.

The Office of the Ombudsman has opened a motu proprio inquiry into alleged irregularities concerning the handling of the new coronavirus crisis of the Department of Health (DOH).

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“[T]o make the investigation impartial, I think the best and most appropriate thing [for Duque] to do is to take a leave of absence at the very least,” Gatchalian told reporters.

If Duque stays, he could influence the information that the Ombudsman would get from the DOH, he added.

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DOH can do without Duque

Gatchalian said he believed the DOH would be able to handle the coronavirus response without Duque.

According to the senator, it’s the national task force, which is composed of several government agencies, including the DOH, that takes care of isolation centers, coronavirus testing and delivery of personal protective equipment. The DOH is mostly concerned with analyzing the epidemiology data and giving public health advice, Gatchalian said.

“My point there is, the bulk of the activity is now outside of DOH,” he said.

Gatchalian also said the Ombudsman investigation was a chance to get to the truth about allegations of irregularities concerning the DOH’s purchase of testing equipment.

He noted that the Bayanihan to Heal As One Act gives the executive flexibility in procuring supplies without bidding, but this does not mean it can purchase things at unreasonable prices.

Gatchalian also thinks Duque lacked the foresight to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic properly. “Had testing laboratories and isolation centers been set up early, we would have had a better response to the health crisis,” he said.

Gatchalian is one of the 14 senators who signed a Senate resolution asking Duque to step down for “failure of leadership, negligence, lack of foresight and inefficiency” in handling the coronavirus crisis.

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Ombudsman Samuel Martires announced the investigation on Wednesday, saying a team would look into alleged irregularities, including delayed procurement of personal protective equipment and other needs of health workers and lapses that led to the deaths of front-line hospital staff.

Probers given the runaround

Martires said the investigators would also look into the DOH’s “inaction” on the payment of benefits to the families of health workers who died in the line of duty and those who got severely ill taking care of COVID-19 patients, as well as “confusing and delayed” reporting of coronavirus cases.

The investigation began before the government placed Luzon on lockdown in March, but Martires said the probers were given the runaround by some DOH officials and employees by tossing them from one department or office to another.

Sen. Risa Hontiveros on Thursday said the Ombudsman probe was necessary to remove people’s doubts about the DOH and its transactions.

“The health secretary has a lot to answer for and this is an opportunity for him to clear his name,” Hontiveros said.

Officials should know that they are answerable to the people, she said.

“At more than 27,000 COVID-19 cases so far, this probe is a reminder to executive officials: they may serve at the pleasure of the President, but they are accountable to the Filipino people,” Hontiveros added.

Why an investigation?

Duque has not spoken publicly about the investigation. President Duterte was confident Duque could answer the allegations, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said on Thursday.

In April, after the senators demanded Duque’s resignation, Mr. Duterte told the health secretary to stay put and advised him not be “too touchy” or “sensitive” to criticism.

Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said on Thursday that the Ombudsman investigation had affected the DOH employees’ morale and that she herself was caught by surprise.

“We have always been transparent. We present all our data to the public. Every day, in our [press conference], data is made available [on] different platforms,” Vergeire said in a television interview.

“When this came out [on Wednesday], it really caught us by surprise. You know, [why did it reach] this point [that] we are being investigated for these things?” she said.

Vergeire said the investigation would affect work at the health department as preparing for it would eat up staff time that should be spent for the coronavirus response.

Commenting on the Ombudsman’s complaint of being given the runaround, Vergeire said it could be the process of referrals between the DOH and the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine.

“As far as we are concerned, all documents that come to our office, we give them immediate responses, or at least an acknowledgment that we’re still to check it,” she said.

Vergeire said Duque had given instructions to trace the trail of the Ombudsman’s request for documents.

“We are checking [where lapses occurred]. There were information being asked from us, and we’re studying it thoroughly. We’re checking what offices and what are the circumstances involved so we can properly respond to the Ombudsman,” she said. —WITH REPORTS FROM JULIE M. AURELIO AND TINA G. SANTOS

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TAGS: COVID-19 Philippines, DoH, Duque, health crisis, investigation, medical equipment, pandemic, PPE
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