Duterte gives ultimatum to gov't agencies to send home returning OFWs awaiting COVID-19 test results

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, May 25) — Government agencies are quickly heeding the order of President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday to rush the release of COVID-19 test results of over 24,000 returning OFWs languishing in quarantine facilities so that they finally reunite with their families.

Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said Duterte ordered the Labor Department, the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration, and Health Department to process the documents of OFWs and seafarers who are stuck in Metro Manila as they await for the delayed release of their COVID-19 test results and certification.

"Ang sabi niya, 'Hindi katanggap-tanggap na naapakatagal ng proseso bago sila makauwi.' So inaasahan natin na magkakaroon naman po ng implementasyon ang ating mga ahensya ng gobyerno," he said in a phone interview with state media PTV-4.

[Translation: He said it is unacceptable that it's taking them so long to get home. So we expect the government agencies to implement the President's order.]

Duterte allowed the inter-agency body handling COVID-19 testing of returning overseas Filipino workers to use government funds and all modes of transportation to bring home the OFWs to their respective hometowns. Roque said agencies can also tap the aircraft and vessels of the Armed Forces.

Some OFWs earlier complained they have been stuck in quarantine facilities for up to two months, waiting for clearance to go home, according to several lawmakers who called for quicker action.

Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III said agencies are targeting to send home all OFWs who have tested negative and completed their quarantine requirements within three days. He said they are aiming to send by Wednesday 8,000 OFWs to their hometowns on buses from the Parañaque Integrated Terminal Exchange for those who live in Luzon and via the Ninoy Aquino International Airport for those who reside in Visayas and Mindanao.

"Sinusundo na sila ngayon sa lahat ng mga hotels at cruise ships na naging temporary facility," he said in an interview with CNN Philippines on Monday.

Bello said OFWs need to present their clearance from the Bureau of Quarantine or from the Philippine Coast Guard.

However, officials during an online hearing by the House Committee on Overseas Workers Affairs on May 22 admitted that there have been delays in the issuance of medical clearances. Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. also said the delays in the release of land-based OFWs lie with the Bureau of Quarantine, an agency under the DOH.

Over 9,100 OFWs are currently billeted in Bureau of Quarantine-approved hotels and undergoing mandatory 14-day quarantine; more seafarers are inside cruise ships used as quarantine facilities. The usual process is they have to take an RT-PCR test. The Philippine Red Cross processes the swabs then sends the results to the Philippine Coast Guard or Bureau of Quarantine, which issues the certificates of completion.

The Interior Department warned those charging extorbitant fees in exchange for medical certificates. 

Roque said Duterte also instructed the Department of Health to ramp up PCR testing in other regions so the OFWs can be sent to their hometowns, and they can undergo COVID-19 testing closer to their homes.

Vice President Leni Robredo has pushed for the speedier certification of laboratories testing for COVID-19 amid reports of returning overseas workers still not getting their test results even after undergoing the required 14-day quarantine.

COVID-19 response chief implementer Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr. on May 22 said the Philippines has 39 accredited laboratories. Of this number, 21 are in Metro Manila, 6 in other areas in Luzon, 7 in Visayas, and 5 in Mindanao. With this, the country already has a testing capacity of 11,000 tests daily, he added.

Meanwhile, the Health Department said it aims to certify 17 additional laboratories to further expand the country's coronavirus testing capacity and meet the 30,000 tests per day target by the end of the month.

The government expects 44,000 overseas workers to come home this June, while 150,000 to 500,000 overseas workers are estimated to return to the Philippines for the rest of the year.

Duterte has previously appealed to local government units to accept returning OFWs after reports that some LGUs are not accepting OFWs back to their localities due to fear of COVID-19 spread.

CNN Philippines correspondent Tristan Nodalo contributed to this report.