Cash aid tops government's ₱353-B expenses for COVID-19 response

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, May 28) — The cash aid for poor families topped government spending of funds earmarked to address the public health crisis in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Budget Department.

Budget Secretary Wendel Avisado, in an online Malacañang briefing, said a total of ₱353.86 billion was released to concerned departments and agencies but there is no data yet on actual disbursement.

Of the amount the first tranche of the Social Amelioration Program, aimed at giving ₱5,000 to ₱8,000 in financial aid to 18 million low-income families, had the lion’s share at ₱100 billion.

Another P₱96 billion was released for the second tranche, which the Department of Social and Welfare Development has yet to implement. Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said the list of the five million additional beneficiaries is still up for verification. There are a total of 17 million beneficiaries for the next subsidy.

The Department of Labor and Employment also got a total of ₱2.5 billion to help displaced Filipino workers here and abroad. The Department of Finance received ₱51 billion to assist workers employed by small businesses which have been forced to close due to the lockdown.

The “Bayanihan Grant” for cities and municipalities totaled ₱30.8 billion, equivalent to one month of their Internal Revenue Allotment. Provincial governments got an additional budget of ₱6.197 billion.

Meanwhile, ₱8.5 billion was also released to the Department or Agriculture for its “Ahon Lahat, Pagkaing Sapat Kontra COVID-19″ program to address food security.

An initial ₱1.9 billion was given to the Department of Health for the purchase of RT-PCR or reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction test kits, which are considered the "gold standard" in detecting COVID-19.

According to the DOH, a total of 289,732 individuals have been tested, with 22,083 of them testing positive for coronavirus infection. The total confirmed COVID-19 cases nationwide is at 15,588, with the DOH still validating its data.

READ: COVID-19 testing centers working round the clock to clear their backlogs

The DOH also received a supplemental budget of ₱45.7 billion for its COVID-19 response.

Other budget allotments include the ₱150 million and ₱93 million funding to the Armed Forces and the Philippine National Police, respectively, for the operations of temporary treatment and quarantine facilities.

The Philippine General Hospital also got ₱400 million to augment operations, Avisado said.

The remaining ₱10.6 billion of the total ₱353.86 billion budget was released for additional allotments of various government agencies, a breakdown of which can be found at the DBM's website. 

Avisado said total expenses for the COVID-19 response would be bigger since the different departments and agencies also realigned their own funds to addresse the health crisis, but not at the expense of projects.

"Hindi rin kami nagcancel ng projects dahil nasa GAA (General Appropriations Act) 'yan e. Parang hiniram muna yung pera," he said.

[Translation: We did not cancel projects because those are in the GAA. We just borrwed th money for now.]

READ: Gov't wants 5 big-ticket projects done this year despite COVID-19 slowdown

Avisado said the agencies are required to submit a report on budget utilization. The Budget department will, in turn, report to the Office of the President and Congress.

He also encouraged regions to upload a disbursement report on their websites for transparency.

Amid the rising cases of COVID-19 nationwide, the budget chief said there is no basis to seek a supplemental budget from Congress.

"Sa ngayon po hindi natin pwedeng gawin yan dahil ang requirement ng supplemental budget ay merong tayong new source of revenues or taxes and pangalawa kung merong excess sa collection natin. In both cases, wala po," he explained.

[Translation: As of now, we can't do that because the requirement for supplemental budget is we have new source of revenues and taxes and second, we have excess in collection. In both cases, we do not have any.]

The Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases, the policy-making body for the COVID-19 crisis, has recommended the easing of quarantine restrictions in the country as officials cite the need to open the economy, particularly in Metro Manila. The capital region has been under strict quarantine measures since March, resulting in the shutdown of businesses and job losses.

More people will be allowed to leave their homes once President Rodrigo Duterte approves the IATF's recommendation to place most of the country under a more relaxed general community quarantine. His decision is expected late Thursday, as the country reported 539 new COVID-19 cases, breaking its record for the largest single-day increase in infections.