Metro Manila could be de-escalated to COVID-19 Alert Level 1 by March if enough public and private establishments comply with the government’s safety seal certification program, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III said Tuesday.
In an interview with CNN Philippines, Duque said the goal of the safety seal program is to ensure that all establishments will have “very minimal or low to no risk” for those who will enter these places.
Malacañang has announced that Metro Manila will remain under COVID-19 Alert Level 2 until the end of February.
The government, Duque said, still needs to observe how recent gatherings and political activities for the upcoming May 9 elections will affect the COVID-19 figures.
Duque also said Alert Level 1 will likely be considered the “new normal” scenario if the state of public health emergency is lifted in the country.
However, he said the public must still continue observing the minimum health standards even if the government finalizes its new normal action plan.
He said Alert Level 1 is the lowest level while the country is in a state of public health emergency.
Meanwhile, the independent OCTA Research Group said COVID-19 cases in highly urbanized cities in Luzon continued to decline.
In a Twitter post, OCTA fellow Guido David said Angeles, Dagupan, Lucena, and Olongapo improved to low risk for COVID-19.
Baguio City and Puerto Princesa improved to moderate risk, while Naga and Santiago remained at moderate risk, OCTA said.
Earlier, Interior Secretary Eduardo Año reported that the number of areas placed under granular lockdown for COVID-19 decreased to 319.
Speaking to President Rodrigo R. Duterte during the Talk to the People briefing Monday night, Año said the number decreased by almost half from 605 areas last week.
“From 210 barangays last week, the number of barangays affected by granular lockdowns has dropped to 153. From 744 affected households, we only have 355. Only 499 individuals have so far been affected,” Año said.
He added that the number of places under granular lockdown is expected to drop as the government is intensifying its vaccination drive.
The Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR) still has the highest number of areas under granular lockdown with 176, followed by Ilocos Region with 97; National Capital Region, 22; Cagayan Valley, 19, Mimaropa, four and the Zamboanga Peninsula, one.
Nograles said the country was now at “low risk” for COVID-19 as more people get vaccinated and hospital admissions dropped.
The country last week reopened to foreign tourists for the first time in two years, though some health restrictions remain as campaigning for the May 9 elections starts, with political rallies seen as potential superspreader events.
“The National Capital Region and the entire Philippines now have a low-risk classification” in terms of case growth, prevalence and health system capacity, Nograles told reporters.
After surges of the highly transmissible Omicron and Delta strains of the virus that led to government-enforced restrictions on mobility, hospital bed occupancy rates have eased to about 30 percent.
Cases have averaged about 3,600 daily in the past week as the number of fully vaccinated people climbed to around 56 percent of the population, health officials said.
After lengthy lockdowns which ravaged the economy and put millions out of work, the government is now planning for a lifting of all restrictions, Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire told reporters without giving a time frame.
“When that happens, all restrictions will be lifted and everything will be under self-regulation,” she added.
But the Philippine Medical Association (PMA) said that now is not the time to shift to Alert Level 1, the most relaxed of the COVID-19 restrictions, especially as the election campaign period has begun.
The PMA said the National Capital Region (NCR) should still be placed under Alert Level 2 to prevent the further spread of COVID-19.
“We don’t want to lower the alert level from 2 to 1 because it’s the start of the election campaign and there are several rallies being
conducted, and we don’t know if health protocols are being followed,” PMA president Dr. Benito Atienza said.
Earlier in the day, Malacañang announced that Metro Manila will remain under Alert Level 2 until the end of February.
Malacañang made the announcement after the Metro Manila Council unanimously agreed that the region should remain under the current
alert level for the remainder of the month.