Public health expert Dr. Tony Leachon on Thursday tagged presidential spokesman Harry Roque and Health Secretary Francisco Duque III as the persons behind his removal as adviser to the National Task Force Against COVID-19.
“Secretary Roque and Secretary Duque had me removed,” Leachon said in Filipino in an interview with Dobol B sa News TV. “What was my sin? Telling the truth? It’s supposed to be transparent.”
Leachon has cited the importance of accurate “real-time and granular data” in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic.
“That’s so important. How many lives were lost? How many people lost their jobs and became poor?” he said, adding that the Department of Health (DOH) could be liable for late reporting.
“Why did they issue an apology on Monday for their errors in data reporting then remove me on Tuesday?”
At a televised briefing, Roque denied that he and Duque had a hand in Leachon’s removal for his statements critical of the government’s response to COVID-19.
“He (Leachon) is giving me too much credit,” Roque said, adding in Filipino: “I’m just a spokesman. I have no power to compel him to resign.”
Roque said no less that President Rodrigo Duterte had noticed Leachon’s criticism of the government actions on the pandemic.
“It wasn’t me. It wasn’t Secretary Duque. It was the President who noted that you shouldn’t be doing what you’re doing,” Roque said, addressing Leachon in a mix of Filipino and English.
Roque said even members of the task force wondered why they were being attacked by Leachon, who was supposed to be on the same team.
Roque said Leachon’s remarks made it appear that the DOH was hiding the real COVID-19 situation in the country.
“That’s why we were angry because he made it appear that everyone, except him, was lying,” he said. “We are perfecting the recording of cases. We have not perfected it yet but we are striving to improve and we will always give the truth and the true numbers as far as we know, to the people.”
Roque challenged Leachon to prove that the DOH was manipulating COVID-19 data.
“You do not have the monopoly of the truth and we have never lied. When did we lie? He should put it on pape),” he said.
Roque also defended the DOH’s supposed late reporting of COVID-19 data, saying data from local government units, regional offices, and labs also came in late. He said, however, that the DOH was taking steps to solve the delays in reporting.
Leachon said he had already had a run-in with Roque and Duque over the Dengvaxia vaccine controversy that began in 2017.
“Every time I do something, they pick on me. We have a history because during the Dengvaxia controversy, Secretary Roque gagged me at a hearing—and the Health secretary was involved at the time too,” Leachon said in Filipino.
He said officials should rise above personal interests during a crisis for the sake of the country.
On Wednesday, Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr. said Leachon was let go over his “preemptive” release of some information and for being “deaf to collegial advice.”
Interior Secretary Eduardo Año, on the other hand, said he regrets the departure of Leachon from the NTF.
Leachon said the government has to have granular data that is reflective of what is happening on the ground and that backlogs should have been addressed a long time ago.
“In our internal meetings, with due respect to Secretary Galvez, for three months I’ve been seething about real-time and granular data, which is important because the decision of the Inter-Agency Task Force is anchored on that data,” Leachon said.
Leachon cited as n example the situation when he previously visited Cebu and found that the DOH Region VII reports on critical care utilization rate did not match the actual situation.
“All the hospitals were telling us they were full up. That’s what I don’t understand. Why would the DOH regional director there submit a report that was so far from the data that the private hospitals were presenting in Cebu?”
Leachon said he could not turn a blind eye to the COVID-19 data, and that’s why he took to social media to raise awareness among the public.
He said his fault was far less serious than the one Duque is being investigated for by the Office of the Ombudsman.
Amid the controversy, Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said the department has always been transparent about COVID-19 data.
“If there are problems an bottlenecks in disseminating information, we tell the public so there is no misinformation. There is no 100 percent real-time data anywhere,” Vergeire said in Filipino on Dobol B sa News TV.
“We have nothing to gain if we fool the people,” she added. “We have been transparent, as I said, we want people to be guided by accurate information.”
She said differences in the way the DOH and other sources reported COVID-19 information could be expected.
“Some institutions get their data directly from local governments. Others will present their estimates,” she said in Filipino.
She added that differences between national government and local government figures were the result of the need to validate the information.
Leachon said, however, that the DOH may be held accountable for the deaths of some patients because of its late reporting and slow action.
“The Department of Health moved slowly in this time of crisis. Their data management was poor. The execution of their plans was poor,” Leachon said.
Leachon said the DOH’s daily release of “fresh” and “late” COVID-19 test results is “non-existent” in other countries.
Leachon called on the DOH to report COVID-19 data transparently and in a straightforward manner.
The Philippines on Thursday logged 562 more COVID-19 cases—481 “fresh” or newly validated and 81 reported late—bringing the total to 27,799.
Among the fresh cases, 120 were from Metro Manila, 273 were from Region VII, while the remaining 88 were spread out across the country.
Among the late cases, 33 were from Metro Manila, 26 were from Region VII, while the 22 other patients came from various areas nationwide.
The areas with the highest number of infections were still the National Capital Region with 14,054 cases and Cebu City with 2,988 cases as of June 17.
The DOH reported 270 new recoveries, bringing the total number of recoveries to 7,090.
This marks the eighth day in a row where more than 200 new recoveries were reported and the third consecutive day of single-digit new deaths.
“Today’s fresh cases are based on the daily accomplishment reports submitted by only 45 out of 59 current operational labs,” the DOH said.
The death toll has reached 1,116, with nine new fatalities reported Thursday.
The Philippines has 59 licensed laboratories that have tested a total of 495,180 individuals as of June 16.
Senator Risa Hontiverso said the Ombudsman’s investigation into Duque and other Health officials was a reminder that while they may serve at the pleasure of the President, they are accountable to the Filipino people.
“The Health Secretary has a lot to answer for and this is an opportunity for him to clear his name,” Hontiveros said.