Business leaders added to the groundswell of support from lawmakers, the private sector, and local government leaders for the Duterte administration to modify the Enhanced Community Quarantine across Luzon once it expires on April 30.
Billionaire tycoon Enrique Razon on Wednesday urged the government to allow some businesses to reopen as long as they can test their employees for the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) and transport them to work.
“I think the areas where infections are down and businesses and industries can handle the opening… could be given serious consideration,” said Razon, owner of port operator International Container Terminal Services Inc., in an interview on the ANC news channel.
President Rodrigo Duterte is set to decide today (Thursday) if the government will extend or modify the ECQ in Luzon, which was extended by two weeks on April 14 from its initial one-month duration.
Previously, the Makati Business Club expressed that a gradual lifting of the restrictions was “the most likely scenario,” with MBC president Edgar Chua also telling ANC there could be “some relaxation” for a business that can ensure the safety of their workers and communities.
MBC Executive Director Francisco Alcuaz Jr. had said the extension meant more time for the government to address the pandemic and gauge the effectiveness of the lockdown.
He said it also helps the government and private sector prepare for a modified lockdown, which gradually allows operations of certain business sectors.
“[The extension] does put more pressure on all of us to provide for workers who aren’t getting paid and support businesses that are paying their workers, first of all the SMEs, because we will need small and big companies in the recovery,” Alcuaz said.
The group Laban Konsyumer Inc. also said it was in favor of the gradual lifting of the Luzon-wide lockdown.
Its president, lawyer Vic Dimagiba, said that consumers' responsibility “requires we comply strictly with ECQ measures like wearing face masks and social distancing.”
“We support bringing back laborers and consumers back to work, with details for the government [to establish],” he added.
Razon said he cannot quantify the impact that a second lockdown would have on the economy.
"We are really, proverbially, between a rock and a hard place. It’s a tough choice. We let the economy die or people die. It’s really a terrible choice to make," he said.
“There’s no question we’re in a recession … it could lead to depression in the second lockdown, it’s really a choice of the lesser evil [to] save the economy,” Razon said.
“The government I think at the end of the day will have to spend at least an additional P1 trillion to keep things intact over and above of the 2020 budget,” he added.
Razon also said that public transportation is a concern since the virus can freely move around society.
“That’s probably what will happen if public transportation is allowed. It’s really a tough choice,” he said.
Razon also warned that if the lockdown goes longer more Filipinos will be out of jobs “so the government and Congress should come up a second package for small business and for the people.”
The government earlier announced subsidy programs amounting to P256 billion for the country’s most vulnerable sectors hit the hardest by the economic impact of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.
Top government officials said the President may opt for a modified ECQ after the Luzon-wide lockdown expires on April 30, to keep the country’s economy going while protecting public health.
The President is expected to announce his decision on April 23 what course the country will take after the Luzon-wide lockdown ends.
National Task Force COVID-19 chief implementer Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr. said local government units have been ordered to facilitate regional and provincial cooperation to better contain the spread of COVID-19.
The Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases is formulating sector-specific plans, strategies, and targets, he said.
The Department of the Interior and Local Government and local government units will lead the conduct of contact tracing in communities, Galvez said, saying LGUs have the capacity to identify possible COVID-19 clusters in their areas.
“The localization of the implementation of the National Action Plan against COVID-19 at the regional, provincial, municipal, city and barangay levels is the key to beat COVID-19," he added.
Galvez cited research conducted by the University of the Philippines Research Institute that said the ECQ was helping curb the spread of COVID-19.
He said UP Professor Mahar Lagmay and Dr. Ted Herbosa, UP executive vice president and National Task Force on COVID-19 medical adviser, also warned that the number of infections could go up after the ECQ is lifted.
Galvez said targeted mass testing for COVID-19 cases among health workers and those most vulnerable members of society including the elderly, pregnant women, and immuno-compromised individuals provided the task force a better picture of the health situation in the country.
Galvez said the COVID-19 testing laboratory of the Philippine National Red Cross is now operational and could accommodate about 12,000 tests per day.
The government, he said, aims to test some 2 million people, he said.
"This plan will provide the government the critical data and analysis to help address the crisis brought about by COVID-19," he added.
Galvez said 52,837 individuals have already been tested, and that the first batch out of the 900,000 PCR (polymerase chain reaction) testing kits and 2 million rapid testing kits being procured are expected to arrive this week.
There are 3,052 quarantine facilities that have already been established nationwide, he said, which can handle about 211,474 suspected and mild COVID-19 patients.
He said the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (PhilHealth) will provide health packages for COVID-19 patients who had been confirmed positive and admitted not later than April 15.
Senate President Vicente Sotto III said the government should extend the quarantine in areas largely affected by COVID-19, such as Metro Manila, but with some modifications.
"For example, we can allow tricycle but only with one passenger at a time and then in buses, only one person would occupy per row," he said.
Sotto said he believes the government can just enforce “safe distancing” in areas with very low or no recorded cases of COVID-19.
Senator Leila de Lima expressed hope the government will not go for a total lockdown.
"I know that, as clarified by relevant officials, a total lockdown is not (or not yet) an option. Let’s hope that they will never go for it," she said.
“A total lockdown can only mean more hungry and angry people—a veritable social volcano," De Lima said.
"I’m for a thoroughly-assessed, well-planned gradual, calibrated lifting of ECQ, and selective quarantine, case-to-case, by barangay and by the industry as to work resumption."
Senator Christopher Go, who was present during the President’s meeting with health experts Monday night, said a modified quarantine will likely be enforced.
Among those being considered is whether quarantine measures in areas with fewer or no cases of COVID-19 could be relaxed and whether quarantine measures could be stricter over Metro Manila should the ECQ be extended.
The DOH said there are about 30 provinces in the country that have either a few or no cases of the coronavirus disease.
The Luzon-wide ECQ was imposed last March 16 and it was supposed to be lifted by April 14.
However, it was extended until April 30 as medical experts have yet to determine whether the lockdown has been able to flatten the curve of COVID-19 cases.
While the doubling time has been lengthened from two days to five days, the DOH is aiming for a 30-day doubling time so that the number of cases can be accommodated and treated by hospitals.
In related developments:
• The League of Cities of the Philippines on Tuesday suggested enforcing localized ECQs. "The view of the many mayors is that they are for a more localized enhanced community quarantine," league president Evelio Leonardia said over radio dzMM. “We feel that this is the more effective way to do this considering that the cities, per our check, 63 percent of these [COVID-19] cases are in the cities," he added.
• The Philippine National Police said detention areas are being reserved for violators of the ECQ as part of intensified law enforcement operations. "We will file a case against them and then we will reserve appropriate confinement areas to arrest all those (who) violate the guidelines," PNP Chief, Gen. Archie Gamboa, said in a radio interview on Wednesday. Gamboa said arrested violators could be detained for a longer time because of the number of cases being handled by courts. "You will surely be detained and could be (in detention) for a longer time and you will be mixed with other offenders," he added. So far, the PNP has recorded a total of 136,000 ECQ violators.
• Bayan Muna Rep. Ferdinand Gaite said the government should focus on educating people about the importance of staying home, instead of sending soldiers to the streets to intimidate the population into following quarantine guidelines. The deployment of combat units and armored vehicles in communities is an unnecessary display of force, Gaite said. Instead of intimidation and coercion, the government must embark on a mass education campaign about the virus to create awareness about the need to stay at home. It must convince the people of the importance of preventive quarantine by providing them information they can understand and easily follow, he added.
• The Department of Transportation said it is studying the partial resumption of some modes of mass public transportation, with buses and train lines being allowed to operate subject to strict regulations. “If the IATF will allow it, we can do partial operability but the operational capacity will be abbreviated and reduced to maintain the Department of Health's guidelines on social distancing,” said Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade, speaking in Filipino at an online press briefing.
Under this setup, he said, buses and trains may only ferry 30 percent of their full capacity to maintain social distancing.
• The Department of Information and Communications Technology encouraged government, private and business entities exempted from the ECQ to register their authorized frontliners and personnel in the Rapid Pass System (RPS) through bulk application. RPS is the government’s initiative to speed up inspections of frontliners and priority vehicles at designated quarantine control points to reduce unnecessary physical contact during the ECQ. Launched April 6, RPS uses QR codes and control numbers as checkpoint passes in Metro Manila.