Palace rejects calls to overhaul coronavirus task force

THE Palace on Tuesday turned down the call of several senators to abolish or change the composition of the inter-agency task force heading the country’s coronavirus pandemic response. Senate President Vicente C. Sotto III, among others, have called for a reassessment of the task force in light of the fresh surge of cases a year since the start of the initial lockdown. They urged the administration to let health experts lead the pandemic response. “Wala pong mabubuwag (nothing will be abolished),” Presidential Spokesman Herminio L. Roque, Jr. said in a televised press briefing, citing that the task force is tantamount to the administration. The task force is led by Health Secretary Francisco T. Duque III whom senators have previously petitioned to resign for alleged inefficiencies in handling the pandemic. Mr. Roque, who also serves as the task force’s spokesperson, denied incompetence among the team members and blamed the more contagious strains of coronavirus for resurgence of infections. — Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza

Senator calls for special audit on COVID response spending

A SENATOR on Tuesday called for a special audit on the government’s spending for the coronavirus pandemic response following the renewed surge in cases a year after the initial lockdown was imposed. Senator Risa N. Hontiveros-Baraquel said she will file a resolution to investigate “where the funds are, how they were utilized, and how they can be mobilized if unused.” The probe will cover allocations under two laws passed last year relating to the pandemic — the Bayanihan I or the Bayanihan to Heal As One Act and Bayanihan II or Bayanihan to Recover As One Act. “Those two emergency laws were passed specifically to fund the fight against COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019), pero halatang nagkukulang tayo (but it is apparent that there is deficiency),” she said in a statement. “We need to see the gaps so we can aggressively fill them in. We need a full audit to see our real status,” she added. Ms. Hontiveros said about P570 billion were released for the pandemic response, citing data from the Department of Budget and Management. “Saan pumunta ang bilyon-bilyon (Where have the billions gone)? Are the funds parked? If they’ve been exhausted already, bakit parang hindi naman nararamdaman (why does it seem like the impact is not being felt)?” she said. — Vann Marlo M. Villegas

Immigration officers in illegal entry scheme linked to human trafficking

THE group within the Bureau of Immigration involved in the illegal entry of Chinese nationals have been linked to the trafficking of Filipino women to Syria, a senator said on Tuesday. Under the trafficking scheme, immigration officers would receive P50,000 for each Filipina allowed to leave the country, based on the claims of four victims. “May mga pangalan na paulit-ulit na binibigay ng ating mga (There are names that have been repeatedly given by our) whistleblowers,” Senator Risa N. Hontiveros-Baraquel said during a Senate hearing Tuesday. “Same cast of characters, different crime,” she said in a mix of English and Filipino. Allison A. Chiong, who was the whistleblower in the illegal entry investigation, also confirmed during the hearing that the same group is involved in the trafficking scheme. Ms. Hontiveros also showed screenshots of a Viber message from Mr. Chiong showing a list of names of women to be trafficked signed under the initials of an individual. Mr. Chiong said the initials refer to the alleged right hand man of the former ports chief, who is tagged as the “big fish” in the previous scheme. Immigration Commissioner Jaime H. Morente also provided the names of the four immigration officers who stamped the passports of the four victims, one of whom was among the 86 immigration officers charged by the National Bureau of Immigration last year over the money-making scheme for the entry of Chinese nationals. Charge d’ Affaires Vida Soraya S. Verzosa said during the hearing that two of the three victims who are still in Syria will be brought home within two weeks after coordinating with the Syrian government. Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Sarah Lou Y. Arriola said the labor ban in Syria imposed in 2011 due to security concerns remains in effect. Syria is categorized at Alert Level 4, meaning repatriation is mandatory. There are still about 300 Filipino household workers there. — Vann Marlo M. Villegas

Rep. Singson proposes change of legal smoking age to 21

A LAWMAKER is proposing a revision of the legal smoking age to 21 years old from the current 18. In a statement on Tuesday, Probinsyano Ako Party-list  Rep. Jose C. Singson, Jr. said adjusting the legal age for smoking will save lives and improve the health conditions of our youth.” Mr. Singson authored House Bill 6210, which seeks to amend the Tobacco Regulation Act of 2003. The bill will also put to current guidelines on tobacco regulation in line with international standards. Mr. Singson said nearly 20,000 Filipinos were diagnosed with lung cancer in 2019, citing data of the World Health Organization. The United Nations Inter-agency Task Force on the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases has recommended the adjustment in the minimum age for purchasing tobacco products, one of the causes for non communicable diseases. — Gillian M. Cortez