Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque earned criticisms for expressing perceived conflicting statements about the national government’s plans to ramp up its COVID-19 detection programs in the country.
On Monday, Roque said that the government has no plans to conduct mass testing of citizens similar to the testing conducted in Wuhan, China, considered the epicenter of the virus which causes COVID-19.
“Right now, wala tayong officially sanctioned mass testing ng government. When I say mass testing, this is not just the OFWs na ginagawa ni Secretary Vince; but mass testing, meaning ordinary persons who are going to go back to work today, they will get mass tested. Wala tayong ganoon na government sanction mass testing, correct?” GMA News Palace reporter Joseph Morong asked on Monday.
Roque then responded that the government is still trying to increase the country’s testing capacity.
“Well, as much as possible po ano, mayroon tayong—ini-increase natin iyong capacity natin ng testing kaya nga we’re aiming na aabot tayo sa 30,000,” he said.
Roque in the same press briefing admitted that the government “still” does not have plans for carrying out this preventive protocol as the scale of Wuhan.
“Pero in terms of mass testing na ginagawa ng Wuhan na all 11 million, wala pa pong ganiyang programa at iniiwan natin sa pribadong sector,” he said.
This statement could also be found on the official transcript of the Presidential Communications Operations Office.
‘Expanded target testing’ vs ‘Mass testing’
In a press briefing the next day on May 19, Roque was asked anew why the government could not conduct mass testing as a clarification to his previous statement that the government is leaving up the mass testing to the private sector.
However, Roque chided the reporters and said that they reported it wrongly as they used a “wrong term.” He said the supposed erroneous reporting caused a panic even if his statements were just “taken out of context.”
“Mali kasi iyong term na ginamit mo kaya tuloy nagkagulo sa twitter. Kaya nga po ang pakiusap ko sa ating mga kasama sa media, ingat lang po sa reporting. Kasi ang lumalabas, Trish, sa report mo ay wala tayong expanded testing program. Wala tayong kahit anong programa sa gobyerno, na hindi naman totoo. Iyong reaksiyon ng tao sa twitter, ganyan po ang reaksiyon kapag hindi tayo nag-ingat sa reporting,” Roque told a reporter of CNN Philippines.
“So, anyway, hindi po mass testing ang ginagawa natin, it is expanded targeted testing at wala naman pong bansa sa mundo na lahat ng kanilang mamamayan ay tine-test. Kahapon siguro nagulo ka, kasi sinabi ko iyong ginagawa nila sa Wuhan, dahil sa second wave ay gusto nilang i-test iyong 11 million residents of Wuhan. Pero sa Wuhan lang po iyon, hindi nila kakayanin testing ang lahat ng mga Tsino dahil bilyon nga po ang kanilang population,” he added.
Morong pressed about this claim again and also quoted Roque’s transcript in the previous virtual briefing as he asked him about the mass testing plans, the presidential spokesman then clarified that what the government sought to perform is its own program called “expanded targeted testing.”
He also stressed that the government will not perform the same measure in Wuhan due to the lack of capacity to do so.
“Literally, I compared the situation to Wuhan where they seek to test all 11 billion residents. Hindi po natin gagawin yun sa buong Pilipinas. Ni hindi po natin magawa sa buong Metro Manila. Kaya nga po ang ginagawa natin is a systematic program called targeted testing,” he said.
After this tense exchange was shared online, the names of “Joseph Morong” and “Roque” immediately trended on Twitter Philippines as Filipinos shared clips of the virtual press conference on the micro-blogging platform.
Napikon ba sya? 😂
Harry Roque reacts to CNNPH tweet that there is no MASS TESTING. He lost it LOL. pic.twitter.com/HdGy3WWxiq
— Rod Magaru 🍥 (@rodmagaru) May 19, 2020
Other Filipinos also commented that “mass testing” is not equivalent to testing all Filipinos, citing that that cannot be expected.
“Mass testing does NOT mean testing all citizens but a widespread testing of all PUIs, PUM or suspect and probable cases, aggressive contact tracing, isolating and treating of individuals. BUILD MORE TESTING FACILITIES. MAKE TESTS FOR FREE,” a Twitter user wrote.
I don’t think anyone in their right minds actually expected all 100 million Filipinos would be tested. We can’t even census that much. Mass testing never meant testing every person ever, that’s not the point.
— Dominic Dayta (@sulatronika) May 19, 2020
The need for mass testing has been the subject of public clamor since the start of the quarantine last March.
President Rodrigo Duterte, health officials and deputy chief implementer of the national policy against COVID-19 Vince Dizon have previously assured that they are increasing the country’s testing capacities for COVID-19, particularly for health workers and other frontliners.
Filipino online users criticized Roque and the government on Monday evening for saying that the private sector should be the one to shoulder the costs of progressive testing in the country. They lamented that the government was already granted special powers, and already implemented a two-month community quarantine.
Several personalities tweeted against this issue on Twitter, including actress Angel Locsin and former senatorial candidate Florin Hilbay.
“Kinuha yung 275B na pera ng bayan, kinulong sa bahay ang mga mamamayan ng 2 buwan, tapos bahala na pribadong sektor sa mass testing?” Hilbay said.
He was referring to the hefty budget granted to Duterte by the Bayanihan We Heal as One Act or Republic Act No. 11469. The budget was authorized to be used for the government’s pandemic response.
“Misquote lang ba to? Kasi hindi ako makapaniwalang hindi tayo nagpre-prepare for mass testing na kailangang-kailangan ngayon,” Locsin said.
Rep. Ruffy Biazon (Muntinlupa City), meanwhile, cited the provision on the Bayanihan Act stating the government agencies assigned to cover mass testing.
What the Bayanihan Heal as One Act says… pic.twitter.com/yyeK9dDEWj
— Ruffy Biazon (@ruffybiazon) May 18, 2020
Private-led Project ARK
In his controversial statement, Roque could be referring to the mass testing efforts led by private sectors, which was also discussed by Dr. Minguita Padilla during the same Monday Palace briefing.
Padilla gave updates on Project Antibody Rapid Test Kits (ARK), a private sector-led initiative by Presidential Adviser for Entrepreneurship and Go Negosyo founder Joey Concepcion.
This project, which comprises private companies, was launched last April. Its pilot communities for its rapid testing system were two districts in the city of Manila.
The project’s representative, Padilla, told reporters that as of May 18, Project ARK has conducted anti-body testing to the cities of Manila, Makati, Quezon, Pasig, and Antipolo in Rizal.
Their next target places are in Muntinlupa City, Taguig City, San Mateo, Rizal, and Batangas.
Padilla also said that the group is assisting the government’s RT-PCR centers or laboratories for COVID-19 detection.
“Iyong first batch po ng mga makakatanggap ng ayuda sa Project ARK sa ating RTPCR centers ay ang Central Visayas Molecular Lab for COVID-19; iyong Jose Rodriguez Memorial Hospital – used to be called Tala Leprosarium; Perpetual Help-Las Piñas; Philippine Children’s Medical Center; Quirino Medical Center; Zamboanga City Medical Center,” she said.