Deputy Speaker LRay Villafuerte has appealed to senators to help Filipinos live in a safer environment until such a time that the threat of the coronavirus pandemic subsides by passing soon enough its version of the House-approved “Better Normal’ bill that prescribes a ‘whole-of-society’ approach to strict mandatory safety and physical distancing protocols aimed at containing COVID-19 infections.

“Congress needs to pass new legislation on a whole-of-society approach to stringent mandatory safety and social distancing norms meant to make our communities, offices, business establishments and public places safe enough until such time that a vaccine or cure for the highly infectious and lethal COVID-19 already exists and is commercially available to all,” Villafuerte said.

“We are hoping for the swift passage by the would-be bicam panel of the consolidated Bayanihan 2 bill.

Villafuerte issued this statement following the House of Representatives’ unanimous approval on third and final reading this week by a 242-0 vote House Bill (HB) 6864 or the “Better Normal for the Workplace, Communities and Public Spaces Act of 2020,” which he along with Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano and 240 other legislators had authored.

The Deputy Speaker for Finance at the same time expressed the hope that the Congress could clothe President Duterte once more by September at the latest with special powers to best deal with the pandemic and steer back to recovery the domestic economy that has been ravaged by this unprecedented global health and economic crisis.

Villafuerte voiced such optimism as the House similarly passed this week on third and final reading, this time by a 242-6 vote, HB 6953 or the Bayanihan to Recover as One Act or Bayanihan 2, which seeks to establish a P162-billion fund for the government’s COVID-19 response along with an initial stimulus plan to bring businesses, especially micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs), back on their feet amid the global economic slump.

He is the lead author in the House of both Bayanihan 2 and its precursor, Republic Act (RA) 11469 or the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act, which the Congress wrote last March shortly after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a global health emergency because of the COVID-19 outbreak. 

“With the House’s final approval of HB 6953, the bicameral conference committee (bicam) could be convened right away to iron out a consolidated version of Bayanihan 2 for submission to President Duterte, hopefully before September,” Villafuerte said.

“We are hoping for the swift passage by the would-be bicam panel of the consolidated Bayanihan 2 bill after Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon had virtually expressed support for the House version of the bill in seeking a stimulus package budget bigger than the one provided for in the Senate-approved version,” Villafuerte said.

The Senate-approved version of Bayanihan 2 provides for a smaller outlay of P140 billion as against the House-proposed outlay of P162 billion.

As for HB 6864, Villafuerte appealed to senators to “help Filipinos best adapt to the new world order by passing their own version of the ’Better Normal’ at this time when the WHO itself is bracing for a protracted pandemic and has called on countries to safeguard against what it called ‘a new and dangerous phase’ of the COVID-19 contagion.”

Earlier, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said there will be no return to the “old normal” for the foreseeable future, as the world is now in “a new and dangerous phase” with countries starting to reopen their societies and economies even as the virus is “still spreading fast, it’s still deadly, and most people are still susceptible.” 

Villafuerte said the “Better Normal” bill would “go a long way in helping Filipinos live their lives safely over the next year at the least or until such time when a vaccine or cure for COVID-19 is developed and becomes available for commercial production and sale.”

Aside from prescribing the obligatory health and safety protocols like social distancing, frequent hand-washing and use of facial masks in public to avoid COVID-19 infection, Villafuerte said HB 6864 will clear the way to the speedy migration of the economy to digitalization, which has become indispensable in the face of the COVID-19 contagion that has thus far infected over 130,000 people and killed some 2,000 of them in the Philippines.

“Better Normal” bill would “go a long way in helping Filipinos live their lives safely over the next year.

To bridge the country’s digital divide, Villafuerte is also batting for the fast-tracking and full implementation of RA 11055 on the establishment of a National Identification (ID) System and of the National Broadband Plan (NBP) of the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT).

“Under this better normal environment, contactless transactions through digital payments will be the norm, which we hope would speed up our transition to a digital economy, where even small entrepreneurs living in rural communities and far-flung areas have access to this new kind of payment system,” Villafuerte said.

He said that once approved by both chambers of the Congress, “this measure will help President Duterte realize his goal of financial inclusion and improve the speed and efficiency of delivering social mitigation interventions, such as cash grants, to those who need them the most in times of crisis and calamities.”

Villafuerte said HB 6954 and HB 6864 form part of a comprehensive reform package designed to let the Duterte administration upgrade the delivery of its future social amelioration programs (SAPs)—and avoid a repeat of the hitches that had mired the initial release of cash subsidies to 18 million poor and low-income families hardest hit by the pandemic.

This package also includes two more House-approved bills authored by Villafuerte—HB 1297 or the “Banko sa Baryo” bill that designates Authorized Credit Agents (ACAs) to serve the banking needs of people in remote barangays without banks, and HB 1248 or the E-Government bill that aims to let Filipinos do their official transactions online at home so they don’t need to go to state offices themselves amid the pandemic. 

With the “Bangko sa Baryo” bill, Villafuerte said the government could download its future SAP subsidies to the intended family-beneficiaries not only through accredited banks, remittance centers and pay platforms like GCash and PayMaya, but also through the bill-proposed ACAs that the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) and contracting banks are to tap in distant villages without bank branches.

To make sure the government could make seamless online transfers of cash to beneficiaries of future subsidy programs via all banks, remittance centers, pay platforms or the HB 1297-proposed ACAs, Villafuerte said the DICT needs to expedite its NBP, which aims to deploy fiber optic cables and wireless technologies, to ensure regional connectivity and improve Internet speed, especially in remote barangays nationwide.

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