Duterte still trusts Duque

Christina Mendez - The Philippine Star
Duterte still trusts Duque
“The President has time and again expressed his continuing trust and confidence to Sec. Duque and the President is confident that Sec. Duque can answer all the allegations being looked into by the ombudsman,” presidential spokesman Harry Roque Jr. said.
Presidential Communications Operations Office, file

Duterte wanted Leachon out – Palace

MANILA, Philippines — Secretary Francisco Duque III can continue working in the Department of Health and as chair of the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) despite the investigation being conducted by the Office of the Ombudsman on alleged anomalies in the DOH’s response to the coronavirus crisis, Malacañang said yesterday.

“The President has time and again expressed his continuing trust and confidence to Sec. Duque and the President is confident that Sec. Duque can answer all the allegations being looked into by the ombudsman,” presidential spokesman Harry Roque Jr. said.

He said Duterte has been vocal about his sentiments against corruption, regardless of who among his allies are involved. The trust and confidence in members of his Cabinet would remain unless he fires them, Roque added.

He said it is up to Duque to answer the allegations on the alleged irregularities in the response to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.

“But as far as the President is concerned, he remains. He remains because he has faith and confidence still with Secretary Duque,” he said.

Roque said Duque could handle the new challenge to his government career.

“That’s a question that should be addressed to Secretary Duque. I cannot read his mind. As I have said, the IATF is the whole of government approach and Secretary Duque is just one of the officials there,” he said, when asked if Duque will be distracted due to the ombudsman’s probe.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 crisis early this year, Duterte has reiterated many times his support and confidence in the ability of Duque despite many senators’ and other personalities’ attempt to ask him to step down due to the slow response to the pandemic. 

The President also stood by the DOH secretary when there was an issue on the alleged overpriced personal protective equipment (PPE) procurement by the health agency, which Duque justified before the President and the IATF.

Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian said yesterday that Duque should take a leave of absence to allow an impartial investigation by the Office of the Ombudsman.

Gatchalian said the investigation would allow Duque and DOH officials to clear the air of allegations against them.

“I think to make the investigation impartial… the best and most appropriate thing to do is to take a leave of absence at the very least. Obviously you can influence the information that the ombudsman will request from the agency,” said Gatchalian.

He said the government response against COVID-19 will not be affected if Duque decides to step down, saying the bulk of the anti-virus approach efforts was being done by the National Task Force (NTF), particularly the setting up and management of isolation centers, testing capacity and deliveries of PPE.

“Right now, if you look at the fight against COVID-19… the DOH is just analyzing the epidemiology data and giving public health advice. But even epidemiology data has a lot of complaints, in many instances, there were reports of more late cases than fresh cases, so even the integrity of cases is in question. My point of the matter is that the bulk of activities are outside DOH,” Gatchalian said.

Gatchalian said the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act gave the DOH flexibility to procure anything they need to fight COVID-19 without undergoing bidding, but they should make sure the procurements were at a right and reasonable price.

He said the DOH under Duque failed to anticipate the pandemic as measures to prepare the country in addressing the problem fell short.

He also cited the case of Cebu as the new epicenter, but testing capacity remains very low.

“For me primarily lack of foresight – part of the strategy is to prepare what’s going to happen down the road, at least anticipate,” he said.

Interior Secretary Eduardo Año, for his part, expressed his support for Duque.

Año said the administration still supports Duque as head of the DOH despite facing criticism and an ombudsman probe.

He said Duque enjoys the confidence of President Duterte and his colleagues in the administration.

“I express my support for Sec. Duque,” he said, noting Duque just seemed to be overwhelmed managing the crisis. “It’s very very hard. It’s really taking its toll on everybody, but at this time I believe we have to support Sec. Duque,” Año told ANC. 

Meanwhile, Roque said President Duterte was not happy with Dr. Tony Leachon, adviser for the National Task Force against COVID-19, who criticized the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Malacañang claimed it has been transparent in reporting about the health crisis. ?Leachon resigned after he assailed the health department for supposedly losing focus on risk communication, priorities, data management and plan execution.

He announced last Wednesday that he is no longer part of the NTF. He also claimed that Duque and Roque requested his removal from the post. ?But Roque denied this, saying the President has agreed that Leachon should not have criticized the government’s handling of the pandemic.

“He (Leachon) is giving me too much credit, pambansang laway lang po ako (I am just the national saliva. I don’t have the power to compel anyone to resign),” Roque said at a press briefing.

“During our last meeting with the President, the President himself asked why Leachon was talking like that. So let me correct you, Dr. Leachon: it’s not me, it’s not Secretary Duque but the President himself noted that you should not be doing what you were doing,” he added. ?Roque clarified that Duterte did not seek Leachon’s resignation. 

“The President did not say he (Leachon) should resign, because all of us were not sure about his role. I talked to Secretary Duque when he questioned the DOH figure... I thought he was an adviser to Secretary Duque. It wasn’t the case. He told me he was adviser to (COVID-19 policy chief implementer) Secretary (Carlito) Galvez (head of the National Task Force on COVID),” Roque said.

“But when the President spoke, I hope Secretary Galvez does not mind, Secretary Galvez said he felt weak with what the President declared as far as the statements of Dr. Leachon are concerned. Perhaps, it’s not me, not Secretary Duque who prodded Secretary Galvez to let go of him. It was a declaration of the President himself,” he added.

Roque maintained that the DOH never hid any information about COVID-19 cases in the country. He said members of the policymaking IATF are striving to improve the reporting of updates.

“He (Leachon) is making it appear that all of us are lying except him. It can’t be that he is the only one speaking the truth. There is a need to improve our reporting of data to make it accurate but no one is lying,” the Palace official said. 

Low morale  

The Office of the Ombudsman’s investigation into alleged anomalies in response to the coronavirus pandemic has adversely affected the morale of DOH employees.

“Really, the feeling of the DOH employees, those who are only doing their jobs, of course, it has a huge effect on them as they are asking why are they being questioned over the things that they are doing,” Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said in a television interview.

Vergeire admitted that the DOH was caught by surprise with the ombudsman’s order to investigate Duque and other department officials.

“When this came out, it really caught us all by surprise. You know, (why) it reached this point when we are being investigated for these things,” Vergeire said. 

Aside from COVID-19, Vergeire said the DOH has been dealing with numerous outbreaks for the past two years and the investigation would definitely affect their work.

She said the investigation would take much of their time, which should have been used to improve the COVID-19 response. 

She said their time would be divided between performing their duties and attending investigation proceedings. 

“But whatever is there, we will continue working because this is our mandate. We are open (to the investigation) and we will be working with them and we will cooperate,” Vergeire said.

She dismissed the claim of Ombudsman Samuel Martires that DOH is giving them the “runaround.”

“Given a runaround? That may not be the case. Probably, they are just following the process since the RITM (Research Institute for Tropical Medicine) is under the DOH. Of course, there will be referrals coming from RITM to DOH and back to RITM,” she explained. 

“As far as we’re concerned, all documents that come in to our office, we give them immediate responses, or at least an acknowledgement that we are still to check it,” Vergeire added.  Cecille Suerte Felipe, Alexis Romero, Mayen Jaymalin, Romina Cabrera

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