Philippine president seeks powers over firms, supplies, funds to avert crisis

The Philippines was the first Southeast Asian country to adopt lockdown measures, but more are following suit as cases soar. (AFP)
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Updated 23 March 2020

Philippine president seeks powers over firms, supplies, funds to avert crisis

  • If approved, the granting of the powers would be one of the most aggressive steps to tackle coronavirus
  • President Rodrigo Duterte has a supermajority in both chambers, so the bill is expected to pass

MANILA: The Philippine Congress held a special session over the Internet on Monday to debate a push by the country’s strongman leader to adopt sweeping emergency powers, in a bid to avert chaos from a rapid spread of coronavirus.
A committee of the Philippines’ lower legislative body already passed a bill granting President Rodrigo Duterte additional powers to address the coronavirus situation in the Philippines.
In a special session, the House Committee of the Whole passed House Bill No. 6616, which would declare a national emergency amid the rapid spike of COVID-19 cases in the country.
The bill is now being tackled in the House plenary.
With borders closed to foreigners and tens of millions of people on home quarantine, Duterte wants the power to — where necessary — control supplies and public utilities, order businesses to help government, and pull funds from state enterprises and departmental budgets to redirect into emergency health needs.
If approved, the granting of the powers would be one of the most aggressive steps to tackle coronavirus as governments worldwide roll out stricter measures, including across Southeast Asia, which saw a more than doubling of cases in the past week to nearly 3,700, from 166 a month ago.
The Philippines has confirmed 462 casess, but health officials acknowledge limited testing for the coronavirus means its already overstretched health system could be facing far more infections than the numbers indicate.
“It is a step we were reluctant to take, but the circumstances and the experience of nations worldwide convinced us that we have no other choice,” Duterte’s Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea told a near-empty Congress, with most lawmakers streaming the session at home.
The Philippines was the first Southeast Asian country to adopt lockdown measures, but more are following suit as cases soar, with Vietnam and Malaysia deploying soldiers to help with quarantines or to enforce curbs on travel and gatherings.
Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, has joined Thailand and Cambodia in shutting bars, cinemas and public entertainment venues.
A draft of Duterte’s bill seen by Reuters seeks a “unified national policy” that would, if required, allow the government to temporarily take control of private utilities, telecoms and transport operators or businesses in the public interest, and force hotels, venues and rental properties to accommodate medical workers or quarantine facilities.
It could also control roads, prices, supplies and distribution of power, fuel and goods like food, water, cleaning products, clothing and medical supplies, imported or made domestically.
It would also grant the treasury the ability to take back departmental funds to spend on critical or essential services.
Duterte has a supermajority in both chambers, so the bill is expected to pass, although the opposition is concerned about the scope of the powers and potential for abuse.
The government is playing down the extent of the powers that Duterte would have, wary of public unease over emergency decrees and draconian measures dating back to the 1970s, under the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
Medialdea said the measures would be rescinded when the virus was managed and many would be “standby powers” for if a crisis erupted and “our most critical institutions are nearing a total shutdown.”


UK epidemic is slowing; antibody test could soon be ready, say scientific advisers

Updated 4 min 32 sec ago

UK epidemic is slowing; antibody test could soon be ready, say scientific advisers

  • Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, said there were signs that locking down the country a week ago had slowed the rate of transmission of the virus
  • Prime Minister Boris Johnson imposed stringent controls after projections showed a quarter of a million people could die

LONDON: The coronavirus epidemic in the United Kingdom is showing signs of slowing and antibody tests could be ready in days, Neil Ferguson, a professor of mathematical biology at Imperial College London, said on Monday.
“We think the epidemic is just about slowing in the UK right now,” Ferguson told BBC radio.
Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, also said there were signs that locking down the country a week ago had slowed the rate of transmission of the virus. He said Britain was not in a “fast acceleration” phase.
Official data on Monday showed 1,408 patients in the UK who tested positive for coronavirus (COVID-19) had died so far and there were 22,141 positive cases.
Britain initially took a modest approach to containing the spread of the disease compared with European countries such as Italy.
But Prime Minister Boris Johnson imposed stringent controls after projections showed a quarter of a million people could die. Johnson has since become the first leader of a major power to announce a positive test result for coronavirus.
Vallance said on Monday the restrictions — which have seen public transport use fall to less than a quarter of normal levels — were already having a “big effect” on the transmission of the virus.
This in turn would lead to fewer people being admitted to hospital, he said, and ultimately reduce the total fatality figure.
Hospital admissions had already stabilized at about 1,000 per day, he said.
“It’s quite important — it tells you that actually this is a bit more stable than it has been,” he said, adding that the country was tracking France rather than the worse-hit Italy and Spain.
He said it would take another 2 to 3 weeks to determine the extent of the slowdown in the spread of the virus because of the lag between the rate of transmission and that of hospital admissions.
Ferguson said a third or even 40% of people do not get any symptoms and thought perhaps 2% to 3% of Britain’s population had been infected.
But Ferguson cautioned that the data was not good enough to make firm extrapolations.
He said antibody tests were in the final stage of validation and could hopefully be ready in “days rather than weeks.”