MANILA - Malacañang and Congress are discussing the possibility of allowing President Rodrigo Duterte to deliver his 5th State of the Nation Address (SONA) in July via teleconferencing to avoid mass gatherings amid the coronavirus crisis in the country, Senate President Vicente Sotto III said Friday.
The Presidential Security Group (PSG) and the Office of the President are in talks with the Senate Secretary and the House Secretary General, but a definite plan has yet to be finalized, Sotto told senators in plenary after Sen. Francis Tolentino asked the chamber if hybrid sessions would still be allowed in the second regular session.
"There is a suggestion that the President will deliver his State of the Nation Address in Malacañang and it is up to the senators and congressmen on where they would want to listen," Sotto said.
"That is the initial reaction and proposal that they have. We have not agreed but if we do agree and if all of you agree, we can stay here [in the Senate building]. We need not go to Congress and the House of Representatives because the President will not be there, he will be in Malacañang," he said.
Under the law, the President must deliver an annual report to Congress every 4th Monday of July in a joint session of the legislature. Both houses of Congress are also mandated to start their new regular session on the same day.
Traditionally, members of Congress, Cabinet members, military officials, diplomats and business leaders convene at the Batasang Pambansa in Quezon City, where the President traditionally delivers his State of the Nation Address.
The event also draws mass protests outside the legislative complex every year.
But the PSG "frowns upon" the idea of having 5,000 people in one building as it increases the risk of COVID-19 transmission, Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri said.
"As of now, the PSG does not agree that we have 5,000 people inside the House of Representatives and all members of the Cabinet and all officials of the land in one particular occasion," Zubiri told senators in session.
Another option raised by the PSG is to convene "the President alone together with select members of Congress and the Senate" in the Batasang Pambansa "without any guests," he said.
The Senate can convene in a caucus before the 4th week of July to decide on the matter, Zubiri said.
"The best time to act on that motion... is when we come back on the third week of July or before the SONA, we can have a caucus prior to the opening of Congress and make that decision," he said, noting that the chamber cannot predict the status of the global pandemic next month.
Drilon agreed with Zubiri's suggestion, saying that the Senate's rules on hybrid sessions should also be reexamined by next month.
In March, the Senate passed a measure allowing lawmakers to participate in plenary discussion via teleconferencing to limit the exposure of senators and staff to the highly-contagious COVID-19.
At least 3 senators and 4 staff members have contracted and recuperated from the disease between March and April. A staff affiliated with Sen. Ramon "Bong" Revilla Jr.'s office, meanwhile, succumbed to the disease.