MANILA (UPDATE) - The Senate Committee of the Whole is pushing through with its investigation on the executive branch's plan for the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines this year.
Senate President Vicente Sotto III said the Senate inquiry would not focus on the Presidential Security Group's use of an unauthorized and possibly smuggled COVID-19 vaccine.
Instead, it will focus on the P72.5-billion budget to buy, store and distribute COVID-19 vaccines, in line with the government's pledge to inoculate the entire population starting May 2021.
"Yes, tuloy. Bakit? Sino nagsabi sa Presidente na PSG ang topic sa Lunes? Roadmap ng P72.5 [billion] ang topic!" he told reporters.
(Yes, it will proceed. Why? Who told the President that Monday's topic will be about PSG? The roadmap of P72.5-billion will be the topic!)
Asked if the Senate would summon the PSG, he said: "Hindi. Ako chairman. Wala akong binabago sa original na hearing intent. Bakit pinangungunahan nila ako?"
(No. I'm the chairman. I am not changing the original hearing intent. Why are they getting ahead of me?)
President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday barred PSG members from revealing information about their use of the vaccines.
"If they ask you questions, sabihin ko talaga sa kanila, do not answer. And maybe even I will not allow them to appear in Congress. Makakanood tayo dito ng, not really a crisis, but there will be a nasty thing that will transpire," he said.
(If they ask you questions, I will tell them, do not answer. And maybe even I will not allow them to appear in Congress. We will see something like, not really a crisis, but there will be a nasty thing that will transpire.)
He also defended the vaccination as "a matter of self-preservation."
While Sen. Risa Hontiveros respects Sotto's decision of not inviting the PSG to the hearing, she maintained it was the Senate's duty to get to the bottom of a supposed black market for COVID-19 vaccines.
"If as early as now the government cannot control unverified and possibly life-threatening vaccines from entering the market, people’s trust in any COVID-19 vaccine, even if officially distributed, will only go down," she said in a statement.
In an earlier interview with ANC, she said the Senate was within its right to pursue the inquiry, and that lawmakers would be remiss in their duty if they turn a blind eye on the unauthorized vaccination of some of the President's security men.
"This much I can say, our Senate President and the Senate as a Whole have from time to time, when necessary, explicitly said that the Senate will stand as part of a separate and co-equal branch of government and pursue our legislative duties, warning or no warning from any other member, even the highest of any other branch of government," she said.
The opposition senator also dismissed Duterte's threat as "improper and unnecessary."
"We're not new to that. It has never stopped us from pursuing our legislative duties," Hontiveros said, adding the chamber intends to focus on resolving multiple crises brought about by the pandemic.
"Mali naman 'yon na 'yong ating mismong government officials, ang pinakamataas pa at that, ang magkukunsinti sa ganitong klaseng paggamit ng kontrabando," she added.
(It's not right that our own government officials, at the top level at that, condone the use of such contraband.)
Since the pandemic began, the Philippines has logged over 478,000 coronavirus infections, of which over 9,200 have died from the disease, among the highest in the Southeast Asian region.
It was Duterte who earlier revealed that some soldiers had already been vaccinated against COVID-19.
Military officials confirmed the move to the dismay of health care workers, who are at higher risk of contracting the virus and have not been inoculated. The Philippines has yet to authorize any COVID-19 vaccine.