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MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Health Secretary Enrique Ona is not yet quitting his post but will be on “extended leave,” Malacañang announced on Friday, November 28.
Deputy Presidential Spokesperson Abigail Valte said in a news briefing that Ona has submitted his report on the vaccination controversy to President Benigno Aquino III but not his courtesy resignation.
“Secretary Ona has submitted the report that was required of him by President Aquino and Secretary Ona is exending his leave of absence to afford the President time to assess the contents of the report that he submitted….He did not submit any resignation,” Valte said.
She could not say how long the leave would last, but clarified that it is “not indefinite.”
The Palace spokesperson said Ona was told to go on extended leave by Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr on Thursday in an apparent phone conversation, since the two officials did not have a face-to-face meeting.
She said the President and Ona have not yet met. The health chief submitted his report last week, but not directly to Aquino.
Clarifying earlier news reports that Ona had submitted his courtesy resignation, Valte said that based on her discussion with the health chief, the news report was based on an interview with him hours before his conversation with Ochoa.
During their discussion Thursday afternoon, Ochoa told Ona to go on an extended leave while the President assesses his report.
Asked if Ona’s continued service relied on Aquino’s assessment, Valte said, “The President also said as much….Let’s allow the President to assess and to use his judgment on whether [he] would be satisfied with the answers.”
She said it would take time to go over the “voluminous” report with annexes.
Health Spokesperson Lyndon Lee Suy on Friday said DOH has no official statement on Ona’s extended leave pending official advice from the Palace.
Valte made the statement a day after Ona ended a month-long leave to prepare his answers to questions on the government’s vaccination campaign, and the balance between preventive and curative aspects of public health, as ordered by the President.
Ona was expected to meet with the President on Thursday – the end of his leave – to discuss options and his future, but the meeting did not push through.
The National Bureau of Investigation is looking into the Department of Health’s (DOH) purchase in 2012 of one million units of Pneumococcal Conjugate Vaccine 10 (PCV 10) – a vaccine used for the immunization of infants and children against pulmonary diseases – worth over P833 million.
Complaints from some sectors alleged that the DOH procured PCV 10 vaccines instead of a “more cost-effective” vaccine, the PCV 13.
The President said earlier his satisfaction with Ona’s performance would depend on his explanation.
The embattled health chief is also facing questions after Acting Secretary Janette Garin’s suspension of a department order by Ona to run clinical trials of anti-dengue treatment ActRx Triact in government hospitals.
Experts said the use of the drug for clinical trials poses a “clear and present danger” to public health.
An earlier Rappler report indicated Ona may be caught in the middle of politics. Liberal Party members said they have nothing to do with the appointment of Garin for the health secretary post, but that her and Ona’s fate are entirely up to the President.
Party members said they can only recommend or endorse an appointment. The recent controversies associated with Ona – both the vaccinations and the anti-dengue clinical tests – have not helped his case. As a result, he reportedly prepared a courtesy resignation letter, which he did not have the chance to hand to the President.
How the President will resolve the DOH leadership issue remains to be seen. – Jee Y. Geronimo/Rappler.com