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MANILA — Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the health and budget ministries to arrange payment for healthcare workers who have not received their benefits on time, following nurses’ threats to resign and strike warnings by unions.

Hospitals fear that desertions of medical staff, particularly nurses, have reached a critical point just as the Delta variant sends infections cases soaring, as it has elsewhere in Southeast Asia and globally.

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“Pay them. Use whatever money there is,” Duterte told Health Minister Franscisco Duque, who is facing questions over more than $1 billion in COVID-19 spending, including non-payment of medical workers’ benefits.

The order came after union leaders in hospitals in virus hot spots threatened last week to strike, while a nursing group said dozens could resign over unpaid risk allowances and hazard pay, adding pressure to facilities battling staff shortages.

The Private Hospitals Association of the Philippines (PHAPi) estimated that 40% of private hospital nurses resigned last year, but more followed new waves of infections this year. Public hospitals face similar challenges.

Duterte, in a recorded speech aired on Saturday, also gave the Department of Budget and Management 10 days to help settle unpaid benefits of nurses, doctors and other healthcare workers in public and private hospitals.

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More than 18 months into the pandemic, COVID-19 infections in the Philippines stand at more than 1.8 million, ranking as Southeast Asia’s second highest. It reported its biggest one-day increase in cases on Friday.

Deaths exceed 31,000, or just under 2% of total cases.

Duterte, whose government faces criticism for its handling of the pandemic, insisted there was no corruption at the health ministry, reiterating support for Duque in response to critics’ demands for his resignation. (Reporting by Karen Lema; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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