Malacañang welcomed the idea of the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) and the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) to deploy Filipino nurses to other countries in exchange for more COVID-19 vaccines.
However, presidential spokesman Harry Roque said the statement of Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III was just a proposal to Germany and the United Kingdom.
“The President was not informed of this proposal, as far as I know. This is not the President’s idea. This is the idea of Secretary Bello and Secretary Locsin, which we welcome because more is better than less,” he said.
He added: “But as far as the President is concerned, we have ordered more than enough [vaccines].”
Meanwhile, the DOLE clarified that Filipino nurses are not being peddled as critics have charged.
“It was never the intention to trade or exchange,” DOLE Information and Publication Service (IPS) Director Rolly Francia said in an online press briefing.
Francia said that DOLE doesn’t view Filipino nurses as a “commodity or material for barter.”
The labor official said reports on the “nurses-for-vaccines trade” stemmed from discussions during the previous virtual press briefing, saying DOLE-International Labor Affairs Bureau (ILAB) Director Alice Visperas and other labor officials remarks were taken out of context.
“What Secretary Bello wants is to ensure that the nurse gets vaccinated if ever the request for an exemption in the cap would be granted by the President,” Francia said.
“What we want is to deploy only the nurses who have been vaccinated and the vaccines should come from the requesting countries,” he added.
The United Kingdom government turned down a proposal that would deploy more Filipino nurses to Britain in exchange for COVID-19 vaccines.
“We’ve got no plans to link vaccines with those conversations around the recruitment of nurses,” said UK Ambassador to the Philippines Daniel Pruce. “You know those two strands of conversation I think continue but as I’ve said again we have no plans to link those two issues.”
The statement came in the wake of a proposal by the DOLE to forge an agreement with Germany and the UK to lift the cap on the deployment of health care workers, provided they would allocate vaccines for displaced overseas Filipino workers, including those about to be deployed.
Pruce confirmed that the proposal was discussed during his recent meeting with Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III but declined to go into detail.
While seemingly opposed to the offer, Pruce said he would be meeting with the Labor chief in the coming weeks to “continue our wider discussions.”
Pruce acknowledged that the thousands of Filipino health care workers in Britain have made a significant contribution to the COVID-19 response of the National Health Service (NHS). This said, the NHS is “keen” to sustain the continuous flow of these professionals from the Philippines into the UK.
“So yes, in common with our practice in previous years, we continue to discuss with the government of the Philippines the arrangements whereby Filipino health care workers can continue to work in the UK, primarily in the NHS,” he said.
He noted that the British government and he, personally, are “very heavily engaged” to support Manila in its efforts to secure access to vaccines that are safe and effective and are developed transparently.
“As you know, the UK has made a very emphatic commitment that any surplus vaccines that it may have as we go through the rollout of our own vaccine deployment plan will be passed on to the WHO (World Health Organization) COVAX facility and it will be through the COVAX facility that distribution of surplus vaccines to developing countries will be managed in a fair and equitable way,” Pruce said.
COVAX, co-led by Gavi, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), and the WHO, is a facility aimed at guaranteeing fair and equitable vaccine access across the world, especially for low- and middle-income economies.
Former vice president Jejomar Binay issued a statement that health care workers are not commodities to be traded.
Binay said the reported proposal of the government to offer more nurses to the United Kingdom and Germany in exchange for vaccines is insensitive and dehumanizing.
“Government keeps insisting we have enough money to pay for vaccines, so why even consider using our nurses to secure donations from the UK and Germany?” Binay said.
“If it wants to, government can even use the discretionary fund, and re-align the billions it has allocated to the NTF-ELCAC to purchase more vaccines,” said Binay referring to the National Task Force to End Local Communist Insurgency.
The Philippines is among the countries in Asia with the highest number cases of COVID-19 but has yet to officially vaccinate any single person.
The government recently decided to relax the ban on deploying health care workers abroad.
The DOLE suggestion also drew fire from Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drlon.
“Are we this desperate?” asked Drilon, saying that policy is borne out of the growing exasperation over the lack of COVID-19 vaccines in the country.
“For the government to go this far as trading off its Filipino health care workers in exchange for vaccines means something is not right in the government’s coronavirus vaccination strategy,” he added.
Drilon, a former Labor secretary, advised DOLE to abandon the policy.
“The exchange for vaccines is not included in the mandate of DOLE. Our focus should be on protecting the rights and welfare of our overseas Filipino workers especially during these trying times,” Drilon said.
In the House, the leader of the minority bloc defended Bello’s proposal, saying he was not selling the country’s health workers, but using the country’s resources as “leverage.”
He praised Bello for trying to find ways to produce COVID-19 vaccines for overseas Filipino workers.
“It’s wrong to accuse Bello of selling our frontliners because his action is for the benefit of the OFWs,” said Rep. Joseph Stephen Paduano, adding that the Labor secretary should be commended for taking the initiative in getting vaccines for the Filipinos. With PNA