Senate to go on lockdown but crucial hearings to proceed

The Senate will go on lockdown for two weeks along with the rest of Metro Manila and its surrounding provinces, in an effort to curb the current upsurge of COVID-19 cases in the country.

Senate President Vicente Sotto III on Monday, August 3, said he consulted with the other senators, and so far none of them objected to suspending session from August 4 to 18. This is the same period during which Metro Manila, Bulacan, Cavite, Laguna, and Rizal will be reverted to modified enhanced community quarantine (MECQ).

Sotto proposed the idea to his colleagues the previous night, before President Rodrigo Duterte announced the return to MECQ. Sotto said it was to “show support and concern” for healthcare frontliners, who earlier appealed to the government for “timeout” to regroup and rethink the country’s pandemic response.

During its lockdown, the Senate will not hold regular sessions but will proceed with the scheduled investigation of the corruption scandal at the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (PhilHealth), and a bicameral conference on the Bayanihan to Recover as One or Bayanihan 2 bill.

The PhilHealth probe will include the "status of the health of the nation" in terms of capabilities and plans in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, as proposed by Senator Richard Gordon.

Only senators and staff directly involved in the PhilHealth probe and the bicameral conference will be permitted in the Senate premises in Pasay City. The hearings will be conducted in a hybrid mode, combining physical and virtual attendance of panelists and resource persons.

Sotto and Senator Panfilo Lacson said there is an urgent need to investigate the PhilHealth mess because the agency is crucial to the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Committee of the Whole is set to open the PhilHealth probe on Tuesday morning, August 4. Among witnesses and resource persons expected to attend the probe are PhilHealth President Ricardo Morales, board member Alejandro Cabading, former head executive assistant Etrobal Laborte, and former anti-fraud officer Thorrsson Montes Keith. Laborte and Montes recently resigned from the agency, citing "widespread corruption."

Panels from the Senate and the House of Representatives are also expected to finalize the Bayanihan 2 bill. They may include provisions for additional cash benefits for healthcare workers worth P10,000 to P15,000, Sotto said.

The pandemic response and recovery “standby fund” in the Senate’s version of the Bayanihan 2 bill is pegged at P140 billion. The Senate President said inserting the benefits for healthcare workers would be “a matter of prioritization.”

Sotto said he may call for a plenary session anytime within the two-week lockdown if a pressing need to do so arises. –

JC Gotinga

JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.