Just hours after President Rodrigo Duterte gave him his full backing, even taking responsibility for the rushed and overpriced purchase of protective gears for health workers, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III on Tuesday quickly countered the Chief Executive’s pronouncement against an ill-timed start for the new school year amid the continuing new coronavirus threat.
With a pandemic yet subsiding with no cure nor a vaccine against COVID-19 in sight, the embattled Duque reiterated that classes are “safe to start” on 24 August.
This despite Mr. Duterte’s proclamation on Monday night that he will not allow the start of classes in public schools while the world still waits for the vaccine’s development in more than 100 medical laboratories globally.
“The kids, we will not allow them (to go out) yet,” the President said. “I will not allow the opening of classes, where the children will group together in crowds. They can just play, unless it is safe to come out of their homes with vaccines already available.”
“It is useless to even talk about the opening of classes. It is far from my mind,” he added.
The President’s statement was hailed by the Teachers’ Dignity Coalition (TDC).
“The safety of our children should be a top priority,” TDC president Banjo Basas said. “Let’s just use the time to train our teachers’ technical capacity and other skills to cope with the ‘new normal.’”
At the Senate, where he faced the Committee on Health and Demography chaired by Senator Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go, Duque stated that he is “convinced that it is safe to start the school year on 24 August.”
Duque also claimed that as long as the students, teachers and the school personnel are practicing health safety protocols and physical distancing, it would be safe to conduct classes.
Minimum health standards like physical distancing, frequent washing of hands, and disinfection of classrooms should be observed in each school, the Health Chief said.
He added that thermal scanning will also help detect children needing medical attention.
“We have a lot of measures in place, like fever scanning or thermal scanning. The schools can follow protocols to determine which students are sick,” he said.
Duque also suggested the adoption of online learning alternatives, although he did not address the issue about the lack of resources of teachers and students belonging to low-income families.
His recommendations, however, were rebuffed by Senators Risa Hontiveros, Sonny Angara and others.
The Department of Education (DepEd) earlier scheduled the start of the new school year on 24 August, to follow Republic Act (RA) 7977 (Act Lengthening the School Calendar) which states that the opening of classes should take place not later than the last day of August.
Amendments to the RA 7977 must be introduced so that the school year could start at a later date, especially at this time of a global pandemic.
Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon, however, said the chamber supports the President’s decision to postpone the school year opening, disclosing that they have signed a committee report that authorizes the Chief Executive to set the start of the school year in events of emergency and calamity.
A clamor for Duque’s resignation has snowballed over the past weeks, with lawmakers insisting that Duque has failed to serve the country’s best interest amid the emergency brought by the virus outbreak.
Among those calling for Duque’s resignation are officials and members of the Private Hospitals Association of the Philippines, Inc. (PHAPI), a group which stated that the DoH needs a “younger and more active leader” to face concerns about the pandemic.
“At this time, if he feels tension for himself, then he (Duque) should resign as many doctors are asking that he steps down,” PHAPI president Dr. Rustico Jimenez said. “Duque seemed to be very exhausted. There is a need for a fresh blood to take over at the DoH. We are asking President Duterte to replace him.”
Duque, however, found support from the Philippine Hospital Association (PHA), whose president Dr. Jaime Almora claimed “contented” with the government’s handling of the pandemic.
But no support could be bigger than that which came from the President, who advised Duque to take all criticisms against him positively.
“Don’t be too touchy,” Mr. Duterte told Duque. “There will pros and cons, let us hear them. This is a democracy.”
Presidential spokesman also reminded Duque that all presidential appointees serve at the pleasure of the Chief Executive, who can decide when one should join his official family or when he should leave.
Mr. Duterte also owned up to the purchase of the highly-priced protective gears, an issue that is now being probed by the Senate.
“I take full responsibility and that my order was ‘hurry up, I don’t care where you get them,’” he said.
Senator Panfilo Lacson raised alarm over the purchase of these medical requirements in dealing with COVID-19 patients, claiming DoH-acquired PPE were priced at P1,979 per piece, P900 costlier than the market price.
Budget Undersecretary Lloyd Christopher Lao acknowledged the overprice in each PPE unit, saying the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) will no longer purchase from supplier Omnibus, and will just procure from another source. He admitted the Omnibus price is double than the market cost.
The DBM will also probe the issue about the overpriced medical equipment jointly with the DoH.
“There will be a day of reckoning about this issue,” Lacson assured.
with HANANEEL BORDEY @tribunephl_hana
FRANCIS T. WAKEFIELD @tribunephl_FTW,
ELMER N. MANUEL @tribunephl_lmer,
NEIL ALCOBER AND GABBIE PARLADE