Interview

Interview with Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque by Karen Davila (ANC – Headstart)


DAVILA:  Secretary, good morning to you.

SEC. ROQUE:  Good morning, Karen. Good morning, Philippines.

DAVILA:  All right. Well, you got a lot of criticism, a lot of negative feedback from your fist pump “Panalo na tayo. We beat the UP prediction.” Where was that coming from? I want you to explain that first.

SEC. ROQUE:  Maraming hindi na-gets ‘no. Well, you know, the UP forecast actually is based on a mathematical model ‘no. They forecasted that we will have 40,000 cases by yesterday and we do have means by which to prevent or slow the spread of the disease. The Department of Health has said that the wearing of masks will reduce the probability of getting COVID by as much as 85%, the social distancing would reduce of probably getting it by 80% ‘no. Add constant handwashing and use of disinfectants, we are not as powerless as we think against the disease even if there is no vaccine and there’s no cure to the disease as of yet ‘no.

So what I was exhorting the people to do is given the mathematical model that we would have 40,000, we should take steps to not realize the 40,000 and we succeeded at least in the month of June because we succeeded in the sense that the total number of COVID cases were at 37 and not at 40. It’s a small victory but still a victory which means that with behavioral change, we can prevail over the disease.

DAVILA:  All right, okay. Now, Secretary, other than what you were trying to say is that we beat it, that was I think your context, right?

SEC. ROQUE:  Yes, yes.

DAVILA:  That the Philippines is not as helpless, is official data from the DOH, there’s a DOH tracker that shows otherwise. It shows that there were already 46,335 individuals who tested positive for COVID-19 subtracting your 36,000 that’s June 29 confirmed, it will yield a backlogs of 9,897 cases. So people have even asked, was your congratulatory message, was it even too soon or frankly some have said as far as inaccurate. Some have said ‘intellectually dishonest’ for you to congratulate the government’s efforts.

SEC. ROQUE:   I was congratulating the people not the government’s efforts ‘no because in the end, it’s the people that will determine how fast the disease will spread ‘no. Now I think I’ve clarified the issue on backlogs, it’s not as high as 9,000 or some quarters claim, it is actually 1,000 ‘no and this is after verification with both Secretary Vince Dizon and the DOH. And so the figure remains at 37,000 ‘no and that is the context by which I congratulated the people and I think we should continue to encourage people to try to beat the forecast of how much COVID-19 cases we will have. If the forecast is 60 to 70 in July 31, we should all strive to reduce it as much as [garbled] we have against COVID-19, the wearing of mask, social distancing and good hygiene.

DAVILA:  Okay. Now UP also issued a statement after essentially your statement is “We beat the UP prediction.” So UP issued a statement that essentially there’s a huge need to effectively act now and recognize that the pandemic requires a pro-people, rights based, comprehensive program. Vice President Leni Robredo said the government is also in a state of denial; the government was targeting 50,000 tests a day when we haven’t even really reached the 30,000 tests target. How could you say that we are successful, on what basis?

SEC. ROQUE:  Well, as I’ve said, you look at the case doubling rate is not at 7 nationally ‘no which means that … a far cry from where we started ‘no. It used to be 3 ‘no, it would double in 3 days. Then we look at mortality ‘no, we’re under 10 a day except that of course we have the problem in Cebu where the death in the city alone would equal the national average on a daily basis. But I think if you look at the graphs, it’s clearly going down. Then there is the positivity rate, positivity is how many percentage—what percent of the people actually tested yield positive and we’re now doing 6 to 7 ‘no which is below the threshold of 12 ‘no as determined by the WHO.

So all these indicators mean that we must be doing something right, that our lockdowns worked. And meanwhile there’s also critical care capacity, Karen, we locked down because we wanted to improve our health infrastructure and we did. We’re now doing 30/35 percent critical care capacity which means we have the capacity to treat around 70% more of our people who may get sick ‘no. And that’s exactly why we locked down ‘no, to build this additional infrastructure that’s needed ‘no.

So we’re on track, given that there’s still no vaccine and there is no medicine. The only way we will ultimately win against this disease is we develop a vaccine and an antidote for it.

DAVILA:  Okay. But if you are doing as well as we say, no less than the World Health Organization says there’s no need for Metro Manila to return to a stricter lockdown. Last night, Secretary Dominguez said that he wants NCR and CALABARZON to already go on MGCQ as soon as possible because 67% of income essentially, the workforce is with NCR and CALABARZON and yet, it’s been extended to July 15. Why are we still on GCQ if we are doing so well as you say?

SEC. ROQUE:  Well, you know we did comply with what the WHO said. GCQ was just extended in Metro Manila, we did not go back to MECQ ‘no because what the WHO said is we don’t need to be—to adopt a more stringent quarantine than GCQ. And as far as CALABARZON is concerned, only Cavite and Rizal now are under GCQ ‘no; Batangas and Quezon are now in MGCQ ‘no which means that there’s a lot more industries that can open now in Batangas and in Quezon at least ‘no, and including Laguna as well ‘no. So it’s Quezon, Laguna and Batangas that are now in MGCQ.

So we’re moving towards what Secretary Dominguez said and that was a fundamental change in assumptions in fact ‘no. The fact that the IATF and the President agreed with the economic team, that we have moved past the point of giving all priority to the health of the people and that we should now move towards opening the economy so that the people will now have livelihood ‘no and not just be alive physically.

DAVILA:  But, Secretary, I’m curious, what is the basis for extending GCQ? I’m just curious, what’s the basis for extending GCQ for another 15 days considering we are the longest lockdown in the world as it is of 100 days and then you extend it to another 15 days? What was the logic? How does IATF make these decisions? Is there a scientific reason to, okay, extend it to 15 days so that this, this, this …? Why?

SEC. ROQUE:  Yes. There’s always the criteria of case doubling rate and critical care capacity. In the case of Metro Manila, we’re doing good as far as critical care capacity is concerned. We’re at the average of 35% but the problem is the case doubling rate, it has remained at 7. Now there’s a bit of an improvement because two weeks ago we barely made it to 7, now we’re at 7. But before we can move to GCQ, it has to be at least 10 ‘no and that’s what we are working for ‘no.

DAVILA:  I think you should say 7 or 10 days, right? You mean days, yeah.

SEC. ROQUE:  Yeah, seven days is the case doubling rate and then—but for MGCQ, you need to be around 10 ‘no because 7 is only the minimum ‘no for GCQ ‘no. So we have not made substantial advances in Metro Manila unlike in places such as Batangas, in Laguna and in Quezon where they have achieved doubling rate of 10 days.

DAVILA:  Okay, all right. The WHO issued a statement saying that the Philippines is relatively doing well but it cites poor compliance with DOH guidelines to mitigate the spread and it also says that the Philippines needs to improve contact tracing efforts. What has the IATF done in terms of supposedly hiring people for contact tracers? In other countries, we’re seeing that happen more and more online. What’s the update with that, Secretary?

SEC. ROQUE:  It has always been that we will hire contact tracers minimum 50,000 by July and yesterday Secretary Dominguez confirmed that there is a budget allotted already in the Bayanihan 2 package to hire these much contact tracers ‘no, 50,000 ‘no.

And meanwhile we have also become officially a part of the Google-Apple initiative, which is an app to be used for contract tracing worldwide and it could be implemented through safety.ph. So, I think both the infrastructure – computer infrastructure, as well as the manpower – will be available this coming month of July or this month of July.

DAVILA:  Okay. Last night, President Duterte also ordered DILG Secretary Año to help Locally Stranded Individuals, gather them and house them and feed them. Just last week, flights were cancelled, of some OFWs and once again, Secretary, there were many OFWs that were once again, under the bridge, they were outside. In other words, when flights are cancelled, ano ba ang plano ng gobyerno po para po sa kanila? Where should they go, should they stay? Villamor is already full?

SEC. ROQUE:  Well,  let’s make a distinction between OFWs and locally stranded individuals, Karen. Because OFWs, we were prepared for them, they arrived, they are put in quarantine, they are given PCR and while awaiting results, they stay in hotels ‘no. Now, LSIs are—well fairly new phenomena arising from the times since we partially opened the economy and allowed commercial flights. Unfortunately, many of these commercial flights are cancelled because LGUs refused to accept the flights ‘no, because they refused to accept their passengers ‘no.

So, the President’s order is to house them and to feed them and Secretary Año assured the President that we are doing this. They are being temporarily housed in an elementary school within Villamor Air Base and in a gymnasium of the Philippine Air Force and they said that yes, they are providing food also to the LSIs.

Now, we have also been in discussion in the IATF on a new protocol that would govern up LSIs. Initially, it was just that they needed health certificates and then they could go home. But the receiving LGUs can in fact quarantine them and subject them to PCRs. We are in the process of discussing a new protocol. Tomorrow we will meet again in the IATF and then new protocol would be –they would be allowed to go home; they would be given PCR test and quarantined while awaiting the result of PCR.

DAVILA:  Oo, I think you are talking about those arriving. I am also talking about OFWs or Filipinos that should be leaving and then flights are cancelled and they have nowhere to go.  Last night, the President ordered Secretary Tugade to remove some NAIA restaurants to accommodate stranded passengers. He said, terminate those contracts, remove restaurants, put seats there. Does this mean that essentially, the President is ordering that businesses, paid businesses in the airport with legitimate contracts, all of them be removed and make space for stranded passengers instead of let say hotels around the area?

SEC. ROQUE:  Let me correct you again ‘no. This do not involved OFWs. OFWs, we have chartered flights, we have chartered ships and we have chartered buses to ferry them home. We have not relied on commercial flights to bring back the OFWs, that is pursuant to the President’s instructions and that is why we are really talking about Locally Stranded Individuals. These are individuals who do not have POEA contracts and the expenses to bring them home are not shouldered by the OWWA and you are correct, the President did say that we have to find more space, provide more sitting capacity in our airports. Because he says that at the time when he was travelling on commercial flights, he did notice that even then, that there were not enough seats for passengers to occupy and he has in fact, instructed Secretary Tugade to provide more sitting capacity in our airports to accommodate the Locally Stranded Individuals.

DAVILA:  Okay, Secretary just last. What I am trying to say, our OFWs leaving the country ha, not coming back home?

SEC. ROQUE:  Leaving the country.

DAVILA:  Yes, leaving the country, Filipino’s who are OFWs leaving the country and the flights have been cancelled let’s say and then a friend of mine, just recently gave food last week and those are OFWs about to leave the  country, flights canceled, they have nowhere to stay, which makes them also stranded. These are not those coming home.

SEC. ROQUE:  Okay. Well, I think they are also qualified for assistance. They will be brought to the facilities within Villamor Airbase until their flights are ready to leave. But the mandate of the President yesterday was no one should be left sleeping outside just because there is not enough space in the airport. If need be, get rid of the commercial establishments, because the priority should be the passengers and not the businesses. Of course, the President said, yes, I recognized, they also need to have burgers or some food while waiting for their flights, but as much as possible, he wants more seat capacity, so that the passengers won’t have to leave the airport facilities and go outside to wait for their flights.

DAVILA:  Okay, now, the WHO clarified that it did not say categorically, that the Philippines is the fastest rising country in terms of COVID in the region. But then the numbers showed that. Just for the record, what is the target of the government when it comes to testing, Secretary? What is the capacity, how many are being tested right now and what is your target?

SEC. ROQUE:  Well, as we prepare for the new normal. We want the testing to be no less than 32,000 a day. We are now hitting around 16,000 a day. But it’s important that we reached 32,000 a day to give everyone the confidence that it’s okay to go back to the workplace. Having said that, we are also, the President has also authorized the use of rapid testing kits, which should be utilized in conjunction with PCR test.  So, I think the 32,000 will soon be a reality, because the government has not just purchased 10 million PCR testing kits, we have also authorized the purchase of rapid testing kits. And many factories now through the Project ARK initiative have resorted in fact to rapid testing kits while government has purchased rapid testing kits and distributed them to Local Government Units as well.

DAVILA:  Okay, but when we talked about testing, I think we are talking about PCR. That’s the global standard. What is the capacity right now for PCR?

SEC. ROQUE:  We have hit 16 to 17,000 which still not as much as we would want. But I think Secretary Dominguez and Secretary Karl Chua have said, that it is absolutely necessary that we hit 32,000 per day so that we would have that level of confidence that workers can go back to work.

DAVILA:  Okay, very quickly, Noel Ferrera has a question there is a big howl among media industry members about the Film and Development Council of the Philippines trying to make people in film, TV advertising and live events follow their guidelines when GUILDS have made their own already. What is the IATF rule on these media protocols?

SEC. ROQUE:  Well, you see, I know that the DTI may in fact sponsor guidelines, supported by the Film Industry itself. So, let’s await for that opportunity. But I have brought this up in one IATF meeting, because the Film Development Council made a request to approve the filming of some TV series in Caramoan. And although, I said I have no objection about the film council sponsoring that motion, I had questions about the alleged guidelines that they have issued to govern the resumption of work in the film industry noting that the statute and the executive orders that created the council did not give it regulatory powers

And therefore, it should probably be the DTI   or the Department of Education, believe it or not, because the statutory basis points to overall supervision by the Department of Education, that should sponsor any guidelines that would govern the film industry under quarantine.

DAVILA:  Okay, all right. Now, on other issues: PAGCOR has cried out and reacted on the losses in terms of the contribution of POGOs to the economy. PAGCOR said that POGOs are contributing 94.7 billion pesos to the Philippine economy and could reach as high as a hundred-four billion.

I know that there are many Chinese workers that have already left the country, some of them from legitimate POGO operations. What is the stand? Is the government keeping to the … is it a five percent franchise tax on POGO?

SEC. ROQUE: Well, I think, Secretary Dominguez will not budge from the position that they need to pay all their taxes including the franchise tax.

Now, although the President has said that, you know, we need all the resources, all the revenues that we can derive from, including POGO operations to fund COVID-19 response of the government, I think the bottom line is, they have  to settle their tax obligations.

DAVILA: And for the record, there are still legal POGO operations in the Philippines right now? Would you know how many there are, Secretary?

SEC. ROQUE: I know only one has left so far. This is a Macao-based operator but they closed only their POGO operation; they’re not closing their junket operation as far as the casinos are concerned. If I’m not mistaken, this is Suncity ‘no.

But so far, it’s the only legitimate POGO operation that has manifested that they are leaving the country. But I do acknowledge that we’re getting competition from a country like Cambodia. These POGO operators originally came from Cambodia; came to us because of better incentives. And now, it appears that at least one company has decided to go back to Cambodia.

So for those who object to the POGO operations, I think the minimum … the bottom line for the government, is they should pay their tax liabilities. And we are now seeing at least one company moving back to Cambodia.

DAVIL: Okay. On another note, the Anti-Terror Bill: What’s the update on that? Has the President already made a decision whether he’s going to sign or veto that?

SEC. ROQUE: He did not mention that it is already in his desk. He would have mentioned it yesterday, although yesterday was a jampacked meeting really with report coming from Secretary Dominguez. In fact, that was the only report made, and the report of Secretary Duque. No one else was able to report any more because of lack of time.

But I think if he had signed, he would have said so. So I take it that the memorandum from the Deputy Executive Secretary for Legal Affairs has not reached his office yet.

DAVILA: Okay. But is it fair to say that there is a possibility that the President may just allow this to lapse into law?

SEC. ROQUE: Well, let’s just say, there’s a possibility that the President will take steps to make to, you know, for the bill to become a law either by signing it or by letting it lapse into law.

DAVILA: Okay. A year after the Gem-Ver incident, where 22 Filipino fishermen still have not  received justice, is a Hong Kong ship just recently hit a Filipino boat called Liberty 5 wherein 14 people, not all fishermen, but 14 were affectively also not given assistance by this Hong Kong ship which turned out to be a boat carrier. What action will the Philippines take considering repeatedly, I mean, the Philippines has said that ties are warmer, has called China a close friend, we’ve celebrated 45 years of diplomatic ties, and it’s happened again.

SEC. ROQUE: You know, Karen, this is being proceeded against as an issue involving Philippine jurisdiction. I think it is less controversial because it happened clearly within Philippine waters. This will be investigated by the MARINA, by the Coast Guard. And if there is criminal responsibility, then the fiscal will make the preliminary investigation and file the criminal information in court.

In so far as the damages are concerned, it will be proceeded as an admiralty case falling within the regional trial court of Mindoro. So this is an issue of enforcement of Philippine laws, although it involves a collision where one of them is a foreign flagship. But since it occurred in Philippine waters, it will be Philippine courts that will determine both criminal and civil liability.

DAVILA: Okay. But is there any effort from the Philippine government to actually ask China to take part in essentially investigating, helping the search or finding justice? Because—

SEC. ROQUE: Because it happened in Philippine waters, it’s Philippine exclusive jurisdiction. We will not allow foreign entities to exercise criminal jurisdiction and civil jurisdiction over matter that the Philippine authorities have exclusive jurisdiction.

DAVILA: Okay. When it comes to the 22 fishermen, when I interviewed Foreign Affairs Secretary Locsin, he said that the DOJ has yet to give the amount to be paid to the Filipino fishermen. This was a year ago with the Gem-Ver incident. And Guevarra said, ‘I didn’t know that we had to do that and I know this reached the President’. What action is the government taking on this?

SEC. ROQUE: I’ll have to check. Of course, admiralty was one of my fields of practice when I was in the private sector. The problem here is it does not necessarily an issue of international law, unless of course China as a flag state has made it impossible for our fishermen to recover anything. In which case, the Philippines will have to espouse the claim of its national in an international tribunal.

I’m not sure if we have reached that point, but I’m sure that with closer ties there will recovery of civil damages should be facilitated ‘no.

Now, you know, these people have counsel, Karen, and this is being proceeded against as an admiralty case and has an issue of civil liability ‘no. So, it’s very difficult for the Philippines to actually espouse the claim unless we are sure that there has been a travesty of Justice against our foreign nationals. And while the expiration or the passing of one year would indicate that they have not afforded adequate remedy, it’s still not tantamount to what travesty of justice to the extent that we should espouse the claim of our nationals already.

But having said that, I will inquire on the exact status of where we are and recovering damages for our nationals. And if it appears that clearly there’s a travesty of justice and that they should not be expecting any compensation forthcoming in the near future, then perhaps we could trigger already the concept of espousal. Espousal simply says that the Philippines would take up the cudgels for its nationals in an international forum if need be.

DAVILA: All right. On that note, Secretary Harry Roque, I want to thank you so much for your time this morning, I appreciate it. Thank you, sir.

SEC. ROQUE: Thank you and good morning.

 

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SOURCE: PCOO-NIB (News and Information Bureau-Data Processing Center)