Senators in COVID-19 special session. (Photo courtesy of Senate of the Philippines Facebook page)

The Senate on Tuesday approved on third and final reading an urgent measure authorizing President Rodrigo Duterte to exercise additional powers necessary to address the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) situation in the country.

Senate Bill No. 1418, titled “Bayanihan to Heal as One Act,” was approved by all 12 senators who were physically present in the plenary.

Led by Senate President Vicente Sotto III, the other senators present were acting Majority Leader Sherwin Gatchalian, Senators Pia Cayetano, Christopher “Bong” Go, Francis Tolentino, Panfilo Lacson, Lito Lapid, Manny Pacquiao, Grace Poe, Ralph Recto, Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr., and Richard Gordon.

Meanwhile, eight senators manifested their respective votes via phone patch.

Senators Ronald dela Rosa, Juan Miguel Zubiri, Sonny Angara, Joel Villanueva, Cynthia Villar, Nancy Binay, and Francis Pangilinan voted in the affirmative, while Senator Risa Hontiveros expressed a negative vote via the phoned-in manifestations.

Introduced by Sotto and Cayetano, SB 1418 authorizes President Duterte to “reprogram, reallocate, and realign any appropriation” in the 2020 budget which will be used in the fight against COVID-19.

The measure also empowers the President to “direct the operation of any privately-owned hospitals and medical and health facilities, including passenger vessels, and other establishments to house health workers, serve as quarantine areas, quarantine centers, medical relief, and aid distribution locations.”

Should private business owners “unjustifiably refuse or signified that they are no longer capable of operating their enterprises” as directed by the executive department, the President “ may take over their operations subject to the limits and safeguards enshrined in the Constitution”.

Private entities that will be “directed” by the executive department must be given “reasonable compensation for any additional damage or costs incurred by the owner or the possessor of the subject property solely on account of complying with the directive.”

SB 1418 also authorizes President Duterte to, among others, expedite and streamline accreditation of testing kits and facilitate prompt testing; ensure that all Local Government Units (LGUs) are acting in line with the rules issued by the national government; continue to enforce measures to protect the people from hoarding, profiteering, injurious speculations, manipulation of prices, product deceptions, and cartels; and prioritize the allocation and distribution of medical supplies to coronavirus-referral hospitals, public and private laboratories, and health facilities that have capacities to test and care for suspected COVID-19 patients.

It also authorizes the President to ensure the availability of credit to the productive sectors of the economy; liberalize the grant of incentives for the manufacture or importation of critical or needed equipment or supplies; require businesses to prioritize and accept contracts, subject to fair and reasonable terms, needed to boost government’s fight against COVID-19; regulate and limit the operation of all sectors of transportation through land, sea or air, whether private or public; conserve, regulate and ensure an adequate supply of power, fuel, energy and water; and undertake such other measures as may be reasonable and necessary to enable the President to carry out the declared national policy subject to the Bill of Rights and other constitutional guarantees.

The President’s authorized powers “shall be valid for three months, unless amended by Congress”.

President Duterte will be required to submit a weekly report to the Congress of all actions he performed under the proposed law.

SB 1418 also aims to provide “emergency subsidies” – amounting between P5,000 and P8,000 per month for two months – to some 18 million indigent families whose lives are severely affected by enhanced community quarantine being implemented in Luzon.

The bill also guarantees that public health workers tending to Covid-19 patients and other related procedures will be entitled to additional compensation on top of their usual hazard pay. (PNA)