COVID-19 halts 2022 budget debate at Senate

Sherrie Ann Torres, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Nov 18 2021 03:13 PM

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana (rightmost) is seen shaking hands with the Senator Joel Villanueva in this photo provided by the lawmaker. Senators Juan Miguel Zubiri, Nancy Binay, Ronald
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana (rightmost) is seen shaking hands with the Senator Joel Villanueva in this photo provided by the lawmaker. Senators Juan Miguel Zubiri, Nancy Binay, Ronald "Bato" dela Rosa and Francis Tolentino were also nearby. Photo from Senator Joel Villanueva.

MANILA -- Just like last year, the Senate’s budget deliberation has been stopped by COVID-19.

Senate President Vicente Sotto III during Wednesday’s late night budget discussion announced the need to suspend budget deliberations, upon learning that Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana – who visited the chamber on Tuesday – had tested positive for COVID-19.

“We have to close the Senate...we have to close it down now because of that. So, the entire budget will be delayed, because of that particular error. I don’t know if we can call that an error or what,” Sotto said.

Senators learned about Lorenzana’s test result at almost 10 p.m. Wednesday, prompting them to end the session at 11:30 p.m.

Those who were directly exposed to Lorenzana immediately left the plenary session as a health precautionary measure.

The Senate will be immediately disinfected, Sotto said.

A photo provided by Senator Joel Villanueva showed Lorenzana shaking his hand while Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri, and Senators Nancy Binay and Francis Tolentino were nearby.

Senator Ronald "Bato” dela Rosa, who was defending the Defense department's proposed budget, was seated in front of Lorenzana.

“Parang last year’s budget hearing kay Secretary Lapeña at kay Senator Bato (dela Rosa) quarantine na naman… we tested negative kanina sa antigen swab, we’ll do PCR test again on Sunday,” Villanueva told reporters.

Around the same time last year, Technical Educational and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) Director-General Isidro Lapeña--who attended their agency’s budget deliberation--unknowingly exposed the senators to the virus, which also resulted in the suspension of the session for days.

Lorenzana, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs’ official website, attended the Philippine government’s bilateral meeting in Poland from November 6 to 13.

He returned to the Philippines on November 14 and attended the Senate budget debate on November 16.

The Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) protocol requires travelers from “non-green countries” like Poland to undergo a 10-14 day home quarantine, regardless if the person is a government official or not.

Lorenzana’s presence at the Senate visibly irked Sotto.

“Home quarantine… The Senate is not the home… If we are going to be strict with our people, we have to be strict with our officials lalo na, we should set the example.:"

"Eh lalo na kung Green country ang pinanggalingan. We’re looking at the list eh. Poland is not a Green country,” Sotto pointed out during Wednesday night's session. 

Senator Pia Cayetano, who was defending the Department of Health’s proposed budget at that time, immediately conferred with the DOH officials who were assisting her.

“What’s the protocol? Pag public official home talaga? That’s what I know no?..So regardless of the color-coding of the country, home quarantine also, for public officials,” Cayetano said.

Senators, meanwhile, were immediately subjected to an antigen test, which fortunately yielded negative results. 

All those physically present at the session, including Senate employees, will undergo an RT-PCR test on Sunday, according to Villanueva.

And as a result of Lorenzana’s seeming breach of COVID health and safety protocol, the Senate adopted stricter COVID-19 protocols starting Thursday.

For those visiting the Senate, the chamber’s new protocols are the following:

- Negative COVID-19 RT-PCR test (24 hours validity from specimen collection) OR Negative COVID-19 Antigen result (valid for 24 hours from specimen collection)
- Medical certificate (indicating negative for COVID-19 symptoms valid for 24 hours)
- COVID-19 vaccination card (must be fully vaccinated for COVID-19)

Zubiri also disclosed that aside from the said officials, visitors and some of the chamber’s employees, the official Hungarian delegation who visited them on Tuesday were also exposed.

“Unfortunately the day that the Secretary was here was a day of an unusual number of Senators present in session as we had an official delegation from the Hungarian parliament present as well,” he explained.

They have been advised to undergo a five-day quarantine procedure to be followed by their RT-PCR test, he added.

Budget deliberations will resume on Monday, provided that the Sunday RT-PCR test will yield negative results. 

Zubiri, meanwhile, asked for the public’s understanding of the delay in the budget deliberations, stressing that the Senate prioritizes the health and safety of everyone.

“We are hoping for the kind understanding of the remaining Departments that are waiting for the defense of their budgets today. Your health and safety is our utmost priority and we apologize for any inconvenience that these delay may bring,” he said.

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