THE new chief of the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) will prioritize finishing the economic recovery plan and frontloading the registration of five million people to the national ID system.

NEDA Acting Secretary Karl Kendrick T. Chua, who assumed office on Tuesday, said the target is to register five million people to the national ID system this year, which will help the government’s distribution of relief measures amid the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. The ID system will be “slowly” ramped up to 40 million next year and 40 million more in 2022.

“The marching orders that were given to me upon my appointment, one is to prepare the recovery plan and second is to accelerate the implementation of the national ID,” Mr. Chua said in an online press briefing yesterday.

He said they will register five million people from different households to the national ID system this year for wider coverage.

Mr. Chua said the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA), an attached agency of NEDA and the main implementing agency of the national ID program, will use the next two months to finish procurement and other preparations so registration could begin by June or July, “once the lockdown is relaxed or modified.”

The official, however, did not elaborate on his position on the possible extension of the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) after April 30, saying he will remain dependent on data and assess tradeoffs.

“I will base my recommendations, if asked, on the evidence coming from the scientific community, in particular those contracted to model the epidemic curve of the virus. From there, once we see the cost of changing our decision on the ECQ and the benefit in the economic gain, then we will be able to make a decision. I have no preference, I will look at the data and make my recommendation based on that,” he said when asked on his recommendation regarding the lockdown.

Mr. Chua, who was appointed last Friday following the resignation of Ernesto M. Pernia, also said he did “not covet” the position but will answer the “call of duty.”

He said he ordered his fellow NEDA officials that there be “no movement until the end of May” for organizational changes so the agency will not be “bogged down” internally as it responds to the economic challenges of the health crisis.

Meanwhile, Mr. Chua said there are no firm details yet on the “Anticipatory and Forward Planning” report the NEDA will submit to the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) as this is still a “working plan.”

“The uncertainty is the reality and we will have to be very flexible. We indeed will submit the report to the IATF but it is a working draft, working paper. Maybe next week we can increase the testing capacity and that will change a lot of what is happening today. ECQ only buys us time. It does not solve the problem. We have to look at it from a day-to-day basis…from there we will assess where our recovery plan should be headed,” he said.

He, however, said the government will determine infrastructure projects under the Duterte administration’s “Build, Build, Build” program that will be prioritized once the situation normalizes.

“We will be entering a new normal and we will have to determine which of the ‘Build, Build, Build’ (projects) will have the maximum impact,” he said.

The acting NEDA chief noted the government needs to better assess the risks from the pandemic as well as the results of earlier relief measures before it can review the projects and decide which will be prioritized.

Without going into details, Mr. Chua said resuming the implementation and construction of infrastructure projects under the administration’s P8-trillion flagship program will be the main growth driver for the economy as this will spur job growth, on top of its multiplier effects.

However, he said continuing the “Build, Build, Build” program will only start once agencies are “allowed to continue and it is safe to go out and work.”

The NEDA chief said the Development Budget Coordination Committee (DBCC) will soon revise their macroeconomic targets following the rebasing and revision of the gross domestic product (GDP) base year to 2018, as well as to incorporate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Before the crisis, the government targeted 6.5-7.5% GDP growth for this year.

Meanwhile, using 2018 as the base, Philippine GDP growth averaged six percent in 2019, a tad faster than the 5.9% previously reported in January that used 2000 prices. — B.M. Laforga