Interview

Interview with Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque by Pinky Webb – The Source/CNN Philippines

WEBB: Secretary Harry Roque, hi. Can you hear me?

SEC. ROQUE: Yes, I can hear you. Good morning, Pinky. And good morning to all our televiewers.

WEBB: Okay, sir, thank you so much for your time. Let me start with this, Sec. Roque, I was already saying before you went on air, we were fixing our line to you, that the President again defending Secretary Duque and he says, I quote: “I place my reputation on Sec. Duque that there was no corruption that happened there.”

What I want to know from you, Sec. Roque, does this mean possibly that the Ombudsman’s investigation may not go anywhere with words like that coming from the President?

SEC. ROQUE: You’re choppy, I couldn’t hear your question. But, yes, the President said that he continues to have trust and confidence on Secretary Duque because otherwise – and let me make this clear ‘no – if the President no longer has that trust and confidence, then he would have fired Secretary Duque already ‘no. So he’s just saying that he puts his personal reputation on the line here. He says that he has full trust and confidence in all members of his Cabinet, including Secretary Duque.

WEBB: What kind of an effect do you think that would have on the ongoing probe coming from the Ombudsman?

SEC. ROQUE: Well, I think not much ‘no because the Ombudsman is an independent body. It’s headed by a seasoned litigator and former trial court judge and Supreme Court Justice; I think he can discern facts for himself. So I think he will proceed with his own probe regardless of what the President has said and in any case what was mentioned by the President was vouching for the integrity of individuals and the Ombudsman knows that its mandate goes beyond personalities ‘no. So I think on the basis of his public pronouncement, he’s also going to deal with the issue of efficiency in government as well as possible breaches of the anti-graft law.

WEBB: Yeah. So in spite of the President standing by Secretary Duque, this probe should not be affected in any way?

SEC. ROQUE: In fact the President said with all due respect to the Ombudsman ‘no, so the President knows the independence of the office and he knows that because he has appointed the Ombudsman Martires twice, to the Supreme Court and to the Ombudsman, he knows that the Ombudsman is independent and is infinitely qualified to proceed with an investigation such as this.

WEBB: I was saying that possibly a lot of people are asking, why the continued trust of the President on Secretary Duque in spite of the probe, in spite of 14 senators asking for his resignation; also lately Senator Win Gatchalian saying maybe the Health Secretary should take a leave of absence pending this investigation. What can you tell us about the kind of trust and confidence the President has on the Secretary of Health?

SEC. ROQUE: What I do know as a matter of personal knowledge is he is very close to the brother of Secretary Duque, Atty. Gonz Duque. And what I understand is Atty. Gonz Duque was the only who welcomed the President in Dagupan City when he ran as president, and of course the friendship of the President with Atty. Gonz Duque go way back from his presidency. They have known each other for a long time, they are both San Beda Law graduates and we can only say that they have a very close and deep friendship.

WEBB: So he believes—is it safe to say, Sec., that he believes in the integrity of Secretary Duque because the President is close to the brother of Secretary Duque?

SEC. ROQUE: Well, you know, he mentioned it actually last night, it was no longer included in the broadcast but he mentioned that when he appointed Secretary Duque, he had only met him once in a hotel by accident ‘no and it is the brother whom he knows very well ‘no. And he also said that he knows the family or that family is very wealthy, owning a school, university and various other businesses in Dagupan and that the Duques don’t have to steal from government ‘no because they are already affluent.

WEBB: But again—may I ask my question again so I don’t misquote you and just to clarify. Does he believe in the integrity of Secretary Duque because he believes in the integrity of the brother and the family, sir?

SEC. ROQUE: Well, he believes in the integrity of Secretary Duque because he doesn’t see anything that has been criminally committed by Secretary Duque himself. He has said that people make mistakes and for as long as these are honest mistakes then he’s willing to go beyond his mistakes. But as a matter of integrity, he believes that the Duque family will not steal, he knows their background very well. They have good—well, not only are they affluent but they also have their [garbled] because he knows the brother very well.

WEBB: Okay. All right, let me shift topics now, Sec. Too confident and too complacent, that’s what the President was saying about possibly what happened in Cebu City. What we’re looking at is about 4,500 cases, the largest number overtaking even Quezon City and now we have Secretary Cimatu to oversee the situation in Cebu. What would be the strategy that you can tell us in addressing the situation in Cebu City?

SEC. ROQUE: Well, the marching order to Secretary Cimatu is, “Do what you must do, implement the policies of the IATF, act on behalf of the IATF. You don’t need to ask permission from IATF but perhaps you should give notice to the IATF. I want you to be my eyes and ears, something has to be done to curtail the spread of the disease in Cebu City.” And he believes that Secretary Cimatu is the man to do it.

WEBB: And what can be done, Sec. Roque? Was it discussed last night?

SEC. ROQUE: It wasn’t ‘no, but the general strategy really is to test, isolate and treat ‘no. So I think that’s—anyone in the position of Secretary Cimatu will just have to focus on those three ‘no. And of course, there will have to be strict implementation also of the ECQ because otherwise it could spill over to the rest of Cebu province as well as to the rest of the Visayas ‘no. So, we beseech the understanding of our brothers in Cebu City, this is not just for their own welfare but for the welfare of the entire Visayas region, if not the entire country.

WEBB: The deaths in Saudi Arabia, I wanted to discuss that. Iyong mga kababayan po natin sa Saudi Arabia, Sec. Roque, I don’t know if you can clarify this, but I seem to be getting two numbers – one is from Sec. Bello and one is from the Philippine Ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Do you have the numbers of deaths in Saudi Arabia, OFWs? How many needs to return? And how many are really positive because I’m hearing some are saying 50 positive COVID-19 and some are saying 100?

SEC. ROQUE: Well, I have heard that around 50 of them died because of COVID, and the 50 will have to be buried in Saudi Arabia. But the total number of those who died is in excess of 250. I don’t have the right figures now because my “kodigo” is not with me right now since I’m doing a broadcast from home ‘no. But what I’m sure about is that 50 of them will be buried already in Saudi Arabia because they died by reason of COVID.

WEBB: Iyon na po, Sec. Roque, no ifs, no buts. Wala na pong choice iyong mga pamilya ng mga namatayan nang 50?

SEC. ROQUE: Well, para po sa COVID, talagang we have issues, health issue. Kasi alam ninyo po in Saudi, they don’t allow cremation and they don’t even allow, if I’m not mistaken, embalming under the Muslim faith.

So, it’s too much of a, you know, health concern to bring home the cadavers of COVID victims. In the Philippines, they are, of course, cremated as soon as possible ‘no. But I think that’s also not possible in Saudi Arabia because they also don’t allow cremation under their Muslim faith.

And at the same time, you know, under their faith, they have to be buried right away, that’s why we were given only 72 hours to bring home the remains of our countrymen.

Now, what complicates matters, of course, is that Saudi Arabia is still on complete lockdown; there’s still no air transportation, and the option is for us to charter. And not just charter, but ask for special permission, of course, for the charter to bring the remains.

WEBB: And I heard you yesterday in your press briefing, Sec., sabi ninyo po na those 50 who died will get the benefits due them—

SEC. ROQUE: I lost you.

WEBB: All right. We’re going to take a short break. We’re going to fix this communication with Sec. Roque. We’ll be right back.

[COMMERCIAL BREAK]

WEBB: You’re watching The Source on CNN Philippines. Our guest today, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque. I want to go back to the situation in Saudi Arabia. Sir, I just want to bring this in because si Philippine Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Ambassador Alonto was saying, there are 353 deaths; 107 COVID deaths and iyong 246 are natural causes. A lot of the question really is – bakit po ang taas? Are you even surprised na ang dami pong namatay na kababayan po natin sa Saudi Arabia, and we don’t even know the cause of death?

SEC. ROQUE: Well, alam ninyo po, hindi naman po siguro nakakasorpresa kasi pinakamarami po talagang OFWs natin ay diyan sa Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I’m not sure about the exact number but they are the number one destination for OFWs, and that’s why when you’re talking of a period over three months, you have this figure, this very high figure.

But I’m also very concerned that iyon nga po ‘no, marami ring mga biktima ng COVID. And relative to the, you know, the national numbers of Saudi Arabia, parang mas marami po talagang mga Pilipinong nadali ng COVID. And I could only surmise na siguro dahil mga nakatira sila sa mga dormitory ‘no, so parang mahirap siguro mag-social distancing kasi mga OFW housing din ang mga tinutuluyan nila. Pero that purely speculative but borne from human experience naman po.

WEBB: Okay. Iyon pong pagpapauwi sa kanila, nakakasa na po ba iyon, Sec. Roque, iyong 246 or so who died of natural causes?

SEC. ROQUE: Well, I know that we are already chartering and if we—there was talk, in fact, last night that they will be chartering up to three flights ‘no to bring home the remains. So we’re not sparing any expense for bringing home the remains of those who could be brought home. And we acknowledge the difference in figures but I think we will have to defer to the figures of the Ambassador because he is on the ground, and we are in fact only relying on figures sent to us by [unclear].

So, I concede that the figures should be the figure of the Ambassador which means … which explains why there was a mention of three possible chartered flights just to bring home the remains of our kababayan.

WEBB: Yeah, I believe, Sec. Roque, sinabi po ni Ambassador Alonto iyon doon sa Laging Handa briefing yesterday. Again, let me talk about this … also very important, Sec., iyong locally stranded individuals. So, a lot of them—well, hundreds of them ay nagdagsaan na po sa Philippine Army because, let’s go back to the situation really, tumuloy po sila sa ilalim ng NAIA Ex dahil gusto na pong makaalis, hindi pa makaalis kaya doon muna nanirahan sa ilalim ng tulay. Dinala sa Philippine Army ng DOTr, ngayon nandoon po sila. And what’s happening, Sec., is that hanggang doon sa labas ng Philippine Army ay nakalinya na po iyong mga locally stranded individuals. Ano ho kaya ang plano sa kanila? Because I believe, doon po sa gymnasium, they can only accommodate a certain capacity, if I’m not mistaken sir, about 400.

SEC. ROQUE: Well, kagabi po pinag-usapan din iyan ‘no. So iyong housing them in Air Force facilities is part of the temporary solution. But the more permanent solution, of course, is to try to bring them home. The President mentioned several alternatives. There was an offer from Governor Chavit Singson to lend about 400 buses on two dates in July to bring home locally stranded individuals and the President said we should take up the offer of Governor Singson.

Another option, of course, is to charter flights to bring home the stranded individuals. Although, the feeling is, the airline should also be somehow responsible because these are individuals who have confirmed flight tickets, but unfortunately their flights were cancelled ‘no. But there has to be coordination with the local airlines, of course.

And then the third option is actually bringing them home by ship, and the President preferred this because at least they will have the amenities of a bed and a working toilet. And although it will take more time, we could bring home more numbers of individuals compared to buses and planes. So we’re now talking actually of government itself taking steps to make sure that they are able to go home.

And Secretary Galvez has also said that now that we have substantial PCR kits that have arrived and we now have about a million of them, then it is possible to give PCR test also to these locally stranded individuals before they leave for their provinces so that they will not be carriers of disease.

WEBB: Right. But Secretary Roque, isn’t the problem really with the local government units? Because the reason the LSIs can’t leave and the reason the flights are cancelled is because ayaw pa po sila tanggapin, hindi po ba ng local government units? So the problem lies at the back end, iyong kanilang dapat puntahan, iyong kanilang dapat uuwian. Dahil hindi po ba the mandate was, hindi sila makakapasok until um-oo iyong LGU?

SEC. ROQUE: That’s true po ano and that is why I think key to all this is the PCR testing capacity ‘no. Kapag na-PCR natin iyan, that would also inspire confidence on the part of the LGUs to accept them. Pero ang pakiusap po talaga ng Presidente ngayon, huwag naman nating tanggihan iyong pag-uwi ng ating mga kababayan. They have a right to go home to their home towns; and although their concerns are valid even without PCR testing capacity in their province, ilalagay mo lang naman po sila sa quarantine facilities. May isang rehiyon lang naman sa buong Pilipinas na wala talagang quarantine facilities, pero wala rin namang mga kaso talaga doon.

So ang pakiusap ng Presidente, kung walang PCR capacity ang probinsIya, i-quarantine ng 14 days; maski po may sakit iyan, after 14 days tapos na po iyan. Pero kung may PCR capacity naman and government has taken steps to improve the PCR capacities of the different LGUs in the provinces, bigyan na lang PCR doon.

Sa ngayon po kasi, hindi sapat iyong PCR kits natin na nasa Manila. It was only sapat for the OFWs, and they are 54,000 of them who have come home ‘no. Pero now that we have taken delivery of a million PCR testing kits we are looking at really administering PCR test to the Locally Stranded Individuals before they are sent back home.

WEBB: When kaya ito mangyayari, sir?

SEC. ROQUE: Nandito na po iyong PCR testing kits, so it is just a matter of distributing them to the labs and this time that we have enough manpower to do it. So we have testing kits now, naubusan po iyan noong recent days, so kinakailangan na lang na iyong capacity ay talagang ma-utilize because we now have very high testing capacity. But still the numbers of actually testing remain between 10,000 t0 12,000.

[COMMERCIAL BREAK]

WEBB: Sir, last night the Presidente said siya mismo he hates the lockdown. Sabi nga niya kung maging reckless ay sorry na lang, kung sino ang maging reckless. And sabi po niya he plans to go around the country to visit military camps. Why the need to d0 this sir and what else is in the pipeline for the President when he goes around?

SEC. ROQUE: Well, I’m hoping the President can actually do it, but PSG is rather strict as far as his movement is concerned because as you know, he is a senior citizen and part of the especially vulnerable population as to this disease.

But, I think the President will insist to visit his troops. He has a scheduled visit, I don’t think I am at liberty to say exactly where he is going, but let’s just say it’s an area where there has been intensified fighting recently and quite a number of soldiers have been killed and wounded in action ‘no. This has been one of the most important [signal cut] the President to show support to the troops who are [garbled] and I think this time around, even if the PSG will object, he will insist and after all he is the President and he wants to do it. There will be precautions taken, he will just address the troops from a distance unlike in the past where he freely mingles with them. And I think this will be the compromise.

WEBB: Okay, Anti-Terror Bill, still a lot of people are asking about this. The President said, it was on his table, but he did not read it, he gave it to his legal team. Sec, who is the legal team? Because my understanding is also the DOJ already submitted their study on the proposal on the Anti-Terrorism Bill to the President?

SEC. ROQUE: Yeah, he is referring of course to the Office of the Executive Secretary specifically the Deputy Executive Secretary for Legal Affairs, DESLA. And of course we all hold office in Malacañang and that is why I know that as a matter of course, all proposed legislation go to that office for vetting and then they will then prepare a memorandum together with transmittal of the actual bill for the President with their recommendation. That is what he is waiting for and he has said that it will take one or two days then he will make his own decision. He [garbled] some—reiterated and emphasized that he will personally review the bill for constitutional infirmities. He is just looking for constitutional infirmities.

WEBB: So, iyong one or two days when do you expect the bill to be read and analyzed and studied by the President?

SEC. ROQUE: Well, it really depends when the Office of the Executive Secretary concludes their recommendation. What he has said was, as of last night, it has not reached his desk yet, he still awaiting the recommendation of his legal office.

WEBB: So, he will have to wait for that. Sec. Harry, I have a follow up question on Secretary Roy Cimatu overseeing the operations or the situation in Cebu. Why the need for that and did it actually mean that the President was quite unhappy possibly with how the IATF handled it or the local government in Cebu that he needed to appoint somebody else to oversee the situation there?

SEC. ROQUE: The President was very clear ‘no. And I would like to emphasize that we are talking of Cebu City not the province, because only Cebu City and Talisay are under ECQ and MECQ. But the President said that there is no point in resorting to finger pointing. There is a problem in Cebu City and Talisay, and he wants a ready solution that is why he is appointing Secretary Cimatu. Secretary Cimatu in the past has also been designated by the President himself to deal with OFW issues in places like Libya. So this is not the first time that Secretary Cimatu was given a special mission by the President; he was also designated to clean up Boracay as well as to clean up Manila Bay.

So, I guess, you can say that Secretary Cimatu is a person that the President turns to when he wants something done and he wants the COVID pandemic somehow managed in Cebu City and he has full faith in Secretary Cimatu to do justice.

WEBB: Does it mean that he was disappointed with some members from the IATF or some officials from Cebu City? Would it be safe to say that?

SEC. ROQUE: I would like to reiterate that the President said this is not the time for finger pointing. And that is why he said that as a Cebuano himself, he knows the Cebuano character and they may have just been over confident and that is we have this problem in Cebu. He refused to resort the finger pointing.

I would like to underscore to the fact that there is regional IATF in Cebu City. But IATF itself, the national IATF prescribes guidelines for national compliance, but we do not specifically with any particular city. It is the local IATF in coordination with the local government.

WEBB: Secretary Harry Roque, sir, maraming salamat po sa inyong oras.

SEC. ROQUE: Maraming salamat, Pinky. It’s always a pleasure and good morning.

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Source: PCOO-NIB (News and Information Bureau)