PH to keep expanding travel ban as more countries report cases of new COVID-19 variant – Duque

By CNN Philippines Staff

The Philippines will continue to expand the list of territories covered by a travel ban due to the new COVID-19 variant detected abroad that is said to be more infectious, the Department of Health said.

“It’s a dynamic list. Once there are countries that report the UK variant, then we will definitely expand the list,” Health Secretary Francisco Duque III told CNN Philippines’ The Source on Wednesday.

Apart from the United Kingdom where the new variant was first detected, the ban now covers 19 more jurisdictions.

The travel restrictions are in place from December 30, 2020 until January 15, 2021. Returning Filipinos, including overseas workers, will be allowed to enter the country subject to a mandatory 14-day quarantine regardless of a negative RT-PCR test result.

Duque and the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases has been earlier criticized for imposing a travel ban on countries that had confirmed COVID-19 cases earlier this year, which eventually triggered the local outbreak since March.

US not yet included

​In a separate briefing, Duque floated the idea of including the United States on the list banning inbound flights in the next two weeks. However, DOH Undersecretary and spokesperson Ma. Rosario Vergeire clarified that the US won’t be covered by the ban just yet.

“We will wait for the US to officially notify to the WHO IHR (World Health Organization International Health Regulations) or official announce[ment] by their government regarding this new strain identified in Colorado before we include in our official list,” Vergeire said.

On Wednesday morning (Manila time), Colorado Governor Jared Polis confirmed that a man in his 20s who is under isolation in Elbert County has the new COVID variant even if he did not travel abroad. It is the first known case of the UK coronavirus variant in United States.

The new coronavirus variant called VUI 202012/01 has not reached Philippine shores so far, but Duque admits it’s highly likely that a case will soon be discovered.

“It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when –– notwithstanding the fact that we can also have our own variant here,” the Health chief said. “We just have to watch out for this, but at the end of the day, one major intervention is always compliance and adherence to minimum public health standards… May laban po tayo dito [We stand a chance here].”

This variant is said to be potentially more contagious and is linked to the recent surge in cases in England. Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque, who is also the spokesman of the coronavirus task force, said local authorities are studying the reported infection in the US.

“As to whether the President may impose restrictions to travelers coming from the United States in light of this new development, the guidance of the Chief Executive is clear: This shall be upon the joint recommendation of the Department of Health, which sits as Chair of the Inter-Agency Task Force, and the Department of Foreign Affairs,” Roque said in a separate statement.

Duque admitted that it will take about seven days for local scientists to identify if the UK variant has infected someone in the country, as it needs to be confirmed through genome sequencing.

A different COVID-19 variant has also been discovered in South Africa, according to reports.

IATF issues

Meanwhile, Duque responded to criticisms that the IATF appears disjointed once again, this time over the travel ban policy. His announcement came in conflict with that of Roque, who argued Tuesday that the expanded ban can not yet in place without the issuance of a written order from Malacañang.

Nag-uusap kami at in fact, we were one in that recommendation which the President approved,” Duque said, adding that President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday evening already gave the go-signal to impose the ban –– contrary to Roque’s claim.

Just last weekend, Duque said there was no need to impose travel restrictions on other countries apart from the UK until there is community transmission of the new variant recorded in that area.

“I must admit that the guidelines didn’t get issued early enough, so ‘yun lang ‘yun [that’s it]. But the same order has been issued later in the afternoon. A little kink, so to speak,” Duque added Wednesday.

Duque said there are no signs yet of the feared holiday surge in infections, but reminded people not to grow complacent and to continue wearing masks, face shields, and observing physical distancing.

“It is during this holiday season when people are less likely to have themselves tested. We will only find this out maybe towards the end of the first week of January, what the real numbers look like,” the DOH chief added.

There were 886 new COVID-19 cases detected in the Philippines on Tuesday, lower than the average 1,000-1,500 daily cases in previous weeks and bringing the total active infections to 23,348.

Over 9,100 people have died due to the disease, while nearly 440,000 have recovered.

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