Health Secretary Francisco Duque III on Tuesday blamed the airlines which carried the Philippines' two confirmed cases of novel coronavirus for the slow contact tracing of the individuals who were exposed on those flights.
At a hearing of the Senate Committee on Health, Duque said only 17 percent of the contacts have been traced.
"Airlines are not sharing the contact details of the passengers. They are invoking confidentiality," Duque said on questioning by Senator Nancy Binay, who pressed the issue of the slow contact tracing.
The Chinese couple who tested positive for nCoV arrived in the country from Hong Kong on January 21.
They were admitted at the San Lazaro Hospital on January 25.
"Ito po ang kailangan natin harapin," Duque said, suggesting that legislation be passed to address the issue.
Cebu Pacific flights flew the Chinese couple from Hong Kong to Cebu while a Philippine Airlines flight brought them to Dumaguete City.
In a statement, Philippine Airlines said it shared the contact details of the passengers concerned to the Department of Health.
"Philippine Airlines shared contact details of passengers of the concerned flight. We shared it to enable DOH to carry out the callouts and on top of that, PAL carried out callouts," PAL spokesperson Cielo Villaluna said.
Cebu Pacific said it had been in close coordination with the DOH, the Bureau of Quarantine and other government agencies to help manage the risk of contamination from the nCoV and had been working with the government from the beginning.
"Per the request of both the DOH and BOQ, CEB has already provided a list of the passengers aboard both flights," Cebu Pacific said in statement.
"There is no impediment whatsoever for CEB to provide any and all information that the BOH and DOQ would need from us for their purposes," it added.
Cebu Pacific said it had also contacted the passengers aboard the flights taken by NCOV-positive patients and updated [government agencies] on those it had been able to speak with.
It also opened a hotline to enable passengers aboard the specific flights to call the airline.
"Ang contacted, 17 percent of a total of 331. Airlines are not sharing. Ito, ho, baka pwede pag-kaisahan ito. The airlines are not sharing the contact details of passengers," Duque said.
Duque said the airlines shared the flight manifests but contact details had redacted.
Data Privacy Act invoked
"They're saying that the airlines are the ones contacting the passengers and informing them and that we're not given the number," Duque said.
"I’m told that these airlines are invoking the Data Privacy Act, I don’t know how. This is rather strange in a time of urgent situation, I do not understand why this is the case but I think that has to be investigated," he added.
Senator Panfilo Lacson said that the DOH should coordinate with the Department of Transportation or the Civil Aeronautics Board.
"Wag na 'yung airlines. Sabi niyo hindi nag co-cooperate. DOH to DOTr or directly to CAB. Hindi ba pwedeng mag-usap and then they can order the airline to produce the manifest," Lacson said.
Duque said that the flight numbers had been announced so that passengers who shared the flight would be informed.
Senator Ronald "Bato" Dela Rosa advised Duque to hand the flight manifest to the Philippine National Police.
"Secretary Duque, once you have the manifest already, bigay niyo sa PNP. Three days lang yan, maximum two days, accounted lahat ng tao na yan. Wag ninyo solohin ang problema. Eh, hindi ninyo shineshare sa ibang ahensya," Bato said.
The DOH said that a 38-year-old Chinese woman from Wuhan, China tested positive for the virus on Thursday last week.
On Saturday, the 44-year-old Chinese male companion of the woman died due to nCoV.
‘No established protocol’
Department of Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade said there was no standard operating procedure in contact tracing.
He said the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) should have forced the airlines to disclose the vital information.
“There is no established protocol. When it comes to contact tracing, CAAP should get in touch with the passengers and the airline. Hawak niyan ang latigo. Kung hindi sumunod, latiguhin mo,” Tugade said.
“Dapat may timeframe iyan ng pagbibigay [ng contact details],” he added.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin then chimed in, noting that the snail paced lcontact tracing is happening because the Civil Aviation Board and the Bureau of Immigration were sleeping on the job.
“These two characters should do their jobs. When it is time to throw people under the bus, the bus is there,” Locsin said.
Senator Panfilo Lacson, for his part, called out Cabinet member for passing the blame around.
“This is a health issue, so this is on DOH. We should not be blaming other people such as BI, CAAP. This should be an initiative of DOH,” Lacson said.
“This is a failure of leadership,” he added. —NB, GMA News