PH Senate to probe govt’s vaccine campaign

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte | Malacañang photo by Simeon Celi

THE Philippine Senate will continue with its inquiry into the government’s vaccination program, despite President Rodrigo Duterte’s threat of a “little crisis” should the senators insist on investigating the unauthorized inoculation of his security detail with an unregistered COVID-19 vaccine.

However, Philippine Senate President Vicente Sotto III clarified that the Committee of Whole’s probe would not focus on the early vaccination of members of the Presidential Security Group (PSG). He also said that the PSG members would not be invited into the hearing.

“The topic of my hearing is the roadmap for the P72.5 billion for vaccines. Who in heaven’s name told (Duterte) I’m calling for the PSG? I think the president is being misled,” Sotto said Tuesday, January 5.

Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon pointed out that while Duterte can invoke executive privilege to prevent the PSG from appearing in a hearing, he has no power to stop Congress from eliciting information in aid of legislation from other resource persons.

“The president, in effect, is invoking executive privilege. It is a recognized power of the president. It is a valid exercise of the power of the President under EO 464, as affirmed by the Supreme Court in the case of Senate of the Philippines vs Ermita,” Drilon told Senate reporters.

“But to investigate in aid of legislation is also a valid exercise of legislative power. There is no preventing Congress from eliciting information in aid of legislation from other resource persons. Congress can exact information on matters that can help it craft better legislation,” he added.

On Monday, January 4, Duterte warned Congress against investigating the PSG, insisting that the inoculation was a matter of “self-preservation.”

“To me, it’s a matter of self-preservation. Iyan lang (That’s all). Whatever be your objection, whatever be your criticism, para sa akin (for me), it is a matter of preservation.

And I would like to call on Congress na hindi naman ako nakikiusap. Ang ano ko lang diretso na salita na (I am not making an appeal. I want to tell you straight) do not tinker with the PSG,” he said in a taped speech.

‘Shut up’

Duterte said that he is not keen on allowing PSG commander Brig. Jesus Durante III and other PSG members to attend the Congress’ hearing.

“I will not elaborate on it but do not force my hand to meddle into this affair because maybe I will not, I am not so keen about allowing Durante and the rest of the PSG to testify,” he said.

He added, “If they will be called to testify in Congress… then I would ask the PSG to just shut up. Do not answer. Invoke the right against self-incrimination and you will not get anything.”

The President threatened the Congress that there will be a “crisis” if the Congress decides to cite the PSG in contempt and detain them.

“Huwag mo silang pakialaman (Don’t interfere) because… Two things may happen: I will ask them to shut up and not to answer any question, and I’m not threatening, please do not cite them in contempt by detaining them, I will not allow it.,” Duterte said.

“Pag ginawa ninyo ‘yan (If you do that), there will be a little crisis. Nasa inyo (It’s up to you). I am prepared to defend my soldiers. I will not allow them for all of their good intentions to be brutalized in a hearing,” he added.

Senate’s responsibility

According to Senator Francis Pangilinan, it would be the Senate’s decision whether or not to focus on the PSG’s early immunization.

“What’s important to me is to ensure that the vaccine rollout should be orderly, fair, safe and effective and find out if the government is indeed prepared for it,” he said.

“If the different agencies of the Executive branch are not yet ready and are going their own ways in different directions, it is the responsibility of the Senate under the Constitution to serve as a check and balance and investigate this,” the senator added.

Earlier, the Senate adopted Pangilinan’s resolution to convene into a Committee of the Whole to conduct a legislative probe into the government’s vaccination program.
Senator Risa Hontiveros, for her part, stressed that it is the Senate’s duty to open an inquiry into the government’s plans.

“We would be remiss in our duty if we did not pursue this…. Kung may isang branch of government na nagkukulang (If one branch of government is falling short) then the other branches, including our own in the legislature, must and I believe, will step up,” she said.

FDA, NBI probes

The Philippine Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Wednesday, January 6 also announced that it will proceed with its probe into the PSG’s use of unregistered COVID-19 vaccines.

“The president said the PSG should not attend congressional hearings. The FDA has its own set of processes on how we handle and investigate complaints and reports. We will continue the probe according to the processes laid out by FDA,” FDA Director General Enrique Domingo said in Filipino.

To date, the FDA has not given any COVID-19 vaccine manufacturer that applied in the country an emergency use authorization (EUA).

Likewise, the country’s National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) said it will not drop its investigation.

“The focus of the NBI investigation is the alleged proliferation of unregistered anti-Covid 19 vaccines in the so-called black market and their unauthorized administration,” said Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra.

“The agency can obtain information from various sources,” he added.

NBI spokesperson Ferdinand Lavin also said that the agency might reach out to the PSG and the military for the investigation.

“If they refuse to cooperate, we will still proceed with the investigation. We will build up the case based on independent evidence,” he said.

Malacañang, for its part, urged the PSG to participate in investigations by agencies in the executive branch.

“Iyong mga hearings ng ehekutibo (The hearings in the executive branch) can continue and of course we expect the PSG to appear and cooperate,” Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said.

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