The government is looking for an additional P10 billion to augment the inadequate P1.4 billion budget of the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) allocated for the holding of returning overseas Filipinos in quarantine, Malacañang said Thursday.
Presidential spokesperson Secretary Harry Roque, quoting Budget Secretary Wendel Avisado, assured the public that the government would source out additional funds since the remaining budget may run out in mid-May.
“Secretary Avisado said we would look for money because it is needed… I am confident that we could source out funds for OWWA to maintain the process,” Roque said in a televised briefing.
“As of 16 April, OWWA’s budget for quarantine hotel facilities, transportation, food and meal, and cremation on funeral services stood at 1.4 billion… Because of the mandatory quarantine, OWWA needs P10,626,370 just to pay quarantine hotel facilities,” he added.
The Palace official noted that the government has been paying P3,000 daily for the stay of every returning Filipino for up to nine days in private hotels, which were used as isolation areas due to limited state facilities.
Testing czar Secretary Vince Dizon, in the same briefing, said the government has been spending about P4.5 million daily for the swab tests of some 1,500 returning overseas Filipinos.
“It is costly, but we know that we need to do this to ensure that our countrymen in the Philippines and the returning Filipinos are free from the virus,” Dizon said.
The labor department, through OWWA, shoulders the expenses for the mandatory 14-day quarantine of returning overseas workers in private hotels, apart from the costs of their swab tests, meals, and transportation.
As early as March, OWWA has expressed alarm that its 2021 budget would be depleted by April or May since authorities have resorted to tapping budget hotels to prevent the state isolation facilities from getting overwhelmed.
Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III has proposed to shorten the 14-day quarantine period to 10 days or remove the testing requirement for returning Filipinos over the government’s dwindling funds.
On Wednesday night, President Rodrigo Duterte sought a hastily-called meeting with the pandemic task force and medical experts to discuss Bello’s proposal.
Bello did not say during the meeting how much the government has been spending for the observance of protocols for overseas Filipino workers (OFW), but he said these “put a heavy burden on our resources.”
“We are appealing if we can go back to the original protocol that upon the arrival of OFW, they will undergo swab tests, quarantine for five days, and if their tests yield negative results, then they can be transported to their destination,” Bello said.
Duterte rejected the suggestion, saying he was not inclined to “compromise” and “move an inch backward” amid the fresh surge in coronavirus infections.
Doctors Edsel Salvaña, Anna Ong-Lim, and Marissa Alejandria who were part of the health department’s technical advisory group, as well as Doctor Cynthia Saloma who serves as executive director of the Philippine Genome Center, warned of the entry of more contagious Covid-19 variants if the government would relax protocols.
Under the existing rules, returning Filipinos should undergo swab tests upon their arrival and on the fifth day. They should also complete the mandatory 14-day quarantine in a government-accredited facility regardless of their test results.
Last year, swab tests were only done upon the arrival of inbound travelers, but the second round of testing on the fifth day was recommended by health officials in January.
This came after four contacts of the 29-year-old Filipino from the United Arab Emirates tested positive for the United Kingdom variant days after his arrival in the country.
“I am not ready for a compromise especially now. Maybe we could for other diseases such as rabies, but for this, no,” Duterte said.
“As you have said, it is transmitted here and there and then you have the exponential problem how to take care of the Philippines,” he added.
As of Thursday, the Philippines has recorded 971,049 coronavirus cases, of which 107,988 were active.