The government could place the Philippines under a tighter lockdown again in case the new coronavirus strain first detected in the United Kingdom enters and spreads in the country, President Rodrigo Duterte admitted on Saturday.
"Actually iyong lockdown is a possibility. I said we are making some projections. But if the severity in numbers would demand that we take corrective measures immediately, then we'll just have to go back to lockdown," said Duterte during a meeting with members of the Inter-Agency Task Force on COVID-19 and health experts in Malacanang.
The President clarified that putting the country under a lockdown anew will "depend on the severity in number... in the meantime [that] we are not able to confront them effectively."
"Kasi 'pag marami na [ang cases with the new variant] and we do not have the antidote how to kill those variants, we have a problem there," he added.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the government might enforce a tighter lockdown, but not after the IATF agrees on a "threshold."
At present, Metro Manila and seven other areas are under a General Community Quarantine (GCQ), while the rest of the country is under a Modified GCQ, the lowest lockdown level implemented by the country during the global pandemic.
This developed as the President authorized a two-week extension of the travel ban on persons from the UK or to the second week of January, as the current ban was supposed to expire on Dec. 31.
He also asked the Department of Health and the Department of Science and Technology to create a new task force that would focus on the new coronavirus strain found in Britain.
“Medical, ideally, it should be medical persons na nakatutok lang talaga diyan sa bagong strain, whether or not it is here or not and whether or not it is as virulent… sabi naman ni doktora hindi masyado,” Duterte said.
One out of 79 travelers who recently arrived from Britain had tested positive for COVID-19, but not necessarily of the new, supposedly more virulent coronavirus strain, Health Secretary Francisco Duque said in the same meeting.
It also didn’t mean the new strain would cause greater sickness or affect the effectiveness of existing COVID-19 vaccines,” Duque added.
“The current evidence suggests 70% transmissibility [of the new strain],” the health secretary added, as he recommended to the President that a travel ban also be considered on countries that reach a community transmission level on the new virus variant sa naturang bansa.
The President, meanwhile, assured that the Department of the Interior and Local Government and local government units would make travelers comply with a mandatory 14-day quarantine as recommended to them by the IATF.
“I hope it [new strain] would not reach the shores of the Philippines, yang variant na yan. Otherwise, we are in trouble,” Duterte said.
“We have to wait for the West to study and come up with solutions. Tayo dito, wait-and-see attitude. Wala naman tayong magawa. I would like to underscore the fact that we are not defenseless. If makapasok man ang variant na yan, there are defense systems in place,” he added.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the government should also consider blocking the movement of people to and from Sabah, where the new strain has reportedly been detected.
COVID Task Force Chief Implementer and vaccine czar Carlito Galvez said the IATF will coordinate with the military on how they can help Sulu and Tawi-Tawi provinces “so the intrusion of possible cases [of the new strain can] be prevented.”
The Bureau of Immigration has said it is already restricting visitors who have recent travel history from the UK, and Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra assured there are enough Immigration personnel to handle the situation despite the dismissal and suspension of about a hundred over the 'pastillas' bribery scheme.
Meanwhile, the passengers from the UK were brought to the New Clark City in Tarlac to complete their 14-day quarantine.
Their swab samples were sent to the Philippine Genome Center and the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine for further study, the Health Secretary said.
The passengers arrived before the suspension of all flights from the UK took effect, Duque added. The suspension started on December 24, 2020 at 12:01 a.m. and would end on December 31, 2020.
More than 40 countries suspended travel from Britain in a bid to contain a fast-spreading new strain of the coronavirus.
Duque said that 12 countries in the Western Pacific reported positive cases from the UK – Hong Kong, China, Singapore, New Zealand, Korea, Japan, Solomon Islands, Vietnam, Australia, Taiwan, and Cambodia.
Among these nations, Australia, Hongkong, and Singapore reported cases based on the new strain of COVID-19.
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