MANILA (2nd UPDATE) - Non-vaccination against COVID-19 cannot be a ground to withhold the benefits of people listed in the government's conditional cash transfer program, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said Monday.
A "No Vax, No Subsidy" policy has been proposed by some officials, particularly from the Department of the Interior and Local Government, supposedly to boost the government's inoculation drive against COVID-19.
Guevarra said that under the COVID-19 Vaccination Program Act of 2021, "vaccination cards shall not be an additional mandatory requirement for government transactions, among others."
"Hence, non-vaccination against COVID-19 cannot be a ground for suspension or termination of conditional cash transfer benefits, if the beneficiary household has already qualified, and continues to qualify, under the (Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program) Act," he said.
He said those qualified under the 4Ps law "become legally entitled to the conditional cash transfer benefits, provided they continue to comply with all the conditions under Sec. 11 of the law."
Guevarra later said in an interview with ABS-CBN's TeleRadyo that the proposed "No Vax, No Subsidy" policy defeats the purpose of the law entitling Filipinos to 4Ps.
Palace spokesperson Harry Roque said that while he personally thinks it is “valid” to require vaccinations in exchange for being kept a part of the government’s conditional cash transfer program, he acknowledges that the law institutionalizing the 4Ps needs to be amended first.
"Hindi lang po ito executive program. Ito ay naisabatas ng Kongreso sa pamamagitan ng RA 11310. May probisyon doon kung paano magkakaroon ng pag-amyenda ng batas.”
(This is not just a program of the Executive branch. This is covered by a law passed by Congress - RA 11310. That law has a provision how to amend it.)
“Sa tingin ko naman po, isang valid na dahilan na i-require ang vaccination kapalit ng pagtanggap ng 4P benefits. 'Yun ang aking tingin. Kailangan po ng amendment. Habang hindi pa na-a-amend, kailangan pag-aralan pa ng DSWD dahil sila ang implementing agency,” Roque said.
(In my view, it's a valid reason to require vaccination in exchange for receiving 4Ps benefits. But the law has to be amended. And while it's not yet amended, the DSWD has to study this because it is the implementing agency.)
Vice President Leni Robredo said the national government should provide incentives for indigent families to entice them to get vaccinated against COVID-19, instead of threatening to withhold financial aid guaranteed under the law.
"Puwede natin gawin na bibigyan natin ng gadgets yung bawat pamilya na vaccinated na," she said.
(We can give fully-vaccinated families some gadgets.)
"Yun yung examples ng incentives. Pero yung para na sa kanila, hindi mo yun puwede i-withhold," she said.
(That's an example of an incentive for them. But you cannot withhold the funds they are entitled to get.)
Sen. Manny Pacquiao described the proposed policy as "illegal, oppressive and anti-poor."
"If the DILG had consulted their lawyers, they would have been made aware that adding another condition for availing of 4Ps subsidy by themselves is illegal and unconstitutional and only Congress can do that," Pacquiao said in a statement.
Sen. Nancy Binay said it is unfair for 4Ps recipients to be "punished" when boosting the government's vaccination drive should be done by addressing some operational lapses.
"Vaccine hesitancy cannot be solved by the DILG’s 'No vax, no health allowance' proposal for 4Ps beneficiaries. There are vaccines that remain in storage and have not been delivered to LGUs because of transport problems and a shortage of cold-chain facilities like medical refs and freezers," said Sen. Imee Marcos.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson said the proposed policy is a wrong approach because it may infringe on human rights, especially if people are forced to take the vaccine brand they are apprehensive about.
"Sa halip na mandatory, mas mainam kung ma-incentivize ang mga tao,” he said.
(Instead of making it mandatory, it's better to offer incentives to vaccine recipients.)
“Ang mga ganitong panukala ay hindi makatutulong sa mga mahihirap," added Sen. Risa Hontiveros.
(This kind of proposal does not help the poor.)
It will all the more “penalize the jabless jobless," said Sen. Joel Villanueva.
While she is not in favor of the proposal, Philippine College of Physicians president Dr. Maricar Limpin told ANC on Monday that temporarily withholding benefits, like what some LGUs have done to encourage senior citizens to get their COVID-19 shot, may work.
"I’ve seen actually some LGUs who did that in the past, like let us say for the senior citizens, the monthly stipend that the seniors will receive will actually be put on hold--on hold lang naman…the local chief executive did not really say that they are not going to give it to the senior citizens,” she said.
“But at least put it on hold and that would actually, that prompted the other senior citizens who are quite hesitant in having themselves vaccinated to have, to really get the vaccine. So that actually serves as an incentive for people to get vaccinated,” she added.
Limpin said offering an incentive is a better strategy, saying, "They need to really give people their benefits, the benefits that are due them because these are benefits that they have promised and probably mandated by whatever policy that they have.”
She said misinformation and disinformation remain the biggest causes of vaccine hesitancy in the country, with some anti-vaccination groups using social media to spread their advocacy.
She lamented that older adults in rural areas are the ones who fall victim to the misinformation drive.
Limpin said her group is now working with communication experts to help encourage more Filipinos to get vaccinated, and to fight the misinformation and disinformation surrounding it.
“We in the Philippine College of Physicians are now reaching out to some of our friends, particularly those who knows about communication, how to do effective communication," she said.
“We want to get them, work with us, collaborate with us so we can create a campaign that will be more effective to get people to have themselves vaccinated.”
Some 29.48 million people in the country have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus as of Sunday, data from the National Task Force Against COVID-19 showed.
More than 64.2 million doses have been administered, including 34.7 million initial jabs, according to government data.
- with reports from Mike Navallo, Sherrie Ann Torres, Benise Balaoing and Katrina Domingo, ABS-CBN News