Senators dispute Roque’s stance on public’s choice of vaccines

Senators are raising eyebrows over Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque's remarks telling Filipinos that they cannot be picky with the brand of COVID-19 vaccines that will be given to them under the government's inoculation program.

Senator Franklin Drilon (Senate of the Philippines / MANILA BULLETIN)

Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said Roque's statements could worsen the public's anxiety on the immunization program against the novel coronavirus disease.

"As a natural human reaction, it will trigger such aversion to the vaccination," Drilon said in a text message on Tuesday when asked about the presidential spokesman's remarks yesterday, January 11.

Senator Risa Hontiveros said the people should be allowed to have a choice on the vaccines that will be administered to them, just like how President Duterte weighs his options between the vaccines coming from Russia and China.

"Kung si Presidente pwedeng mamili, dapat ang taumbayan ay malaya ding makakapili at kalusugan nila iyan. Klaro sa mga survey na may agam-agam ang publiko sa ligtas ng bakuna, pero parang ang mensahe mula sa Palasyo ay ‘conform or get COVID’. Dehado ang mga Pilipino sa galawan na yan,” Hontiveros said in a statement.

(If the President can choose, the people should also be free to choose because it concerns their health. It has been clear in surveys that people have apprehensions about the safety of the vaccines, but the Palace's message was 'conform or get COVID-19'. Our people are at the losing end with that policy.)

Malacañang, she said, should not be issuing "threatening" statements and stop "cramming vaccine preferences down the public’s throat". She stressed that the public's dwindling trust on the vaccination could affect the success of the government's vaccination plan.

Also citing the surveys, Sen. Joel Villanueva said: "Our government should be working on building confidence in the vaccine program, instead on toying around with their announcements at the risk of increasing people’s aversion to the vaccine."

"Let us not reduce the discussion of vaccination into a petty argument because it's not as simple as picking one basketball team over another. Our officials should be more circumspect with words because people’s lives are at stake here," he added.

Sen. Panfilo Lacson likewise said: "It's not fair to say that Filipinos cannot choose their vaccines."

"It's bad enough that the national government virtually controls which brands of vaccines to procure. Pati ba naman ang pagpili kung ano ituturok sa braso ng Pilipino, hindi pa rin pwede mamili ang Pilipino?" he lamented.

"The Filipino people have every right to choose which vaccine to take, it is their money the government is spending to procure the precious doses," Sen. Grace Poe said in a separate statement.

"Rich or poor, everyone should have access to a vaccine that is safe and effective," she added.

For Sen. Leila de Lima, Roque made a "terrible" gaffe when he said that beneficiaries of the free immunization program cannot choose vaccine brands.

"Hindi PSG ang taumbayan para pilitin at utusan tanggapin ang bakuna na wala silang tiwala (The people are not members of the Presidential Security Group to be forced and ordered to receive any vaccine that they do not trust)," the detained senator wrote in her dispatch.

"The Filipinos are not asking for too much, Mr. Roque. The public has the right to choose which vaccine they would be willing to take so they would know which side effects they would also be saying yes to. Akala ko ba human rights lawyer ka (I though you are a human rights lawyer)?" she further said.

Earlier, during the Senate Committee of the Whole's inquiry on the government's vaccination plans on Monday, Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri said found it unfair to be prohibit people from having a preference over what vaccines to receive.

"Hindi po tama na sabihin ng ating mga kaibigan sa gobyerno na huwag kayong masyadong pihikan (It's not right for our friends in government to say that we should not be too picky)."

"Pera natin 'yan, inutang, babayaran din natin 'yang utang na 'yan. Pera ng taong bayan 'yan (Anyway, that's our money, in the end, we will pay for the amounts loaned to fund the vaccination. That involves the people's money)," he pointed out.

On Monday, Roque said that individuals who will refuse to be vaccinated with the vaccine chosen by the government will forfeit their priority status for the free vaccination.

Health Secretary Francisco Duque III later clarified this, assuring that several vaccines with various indications will be used depending on the characteristics of the recipients.