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PH tightens up, bars 3 over new virus fears

‘They came from countries covered by travel ban’

Three foreigners were barred from entering the country after they were found to have traveled to some countries where a more transmissible variant of the COVID-19 virus was detected, the Bureau of Immigration said Thursday.

The three passengers, who arrived at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) on Dec. 30, were immediately turned back to their port of origin, BI spokesperson Dana Sandival said in a radio interview.

The Philippines has imposed a travel ban from Dec. 30, 2020 to Jan. 15, 2021 on the United Kingdom, Denmark, Ireland, Japan, Australia, Israel, The Netherlands, Hong Kong, Switzerland, France, Germany, Iceland, Italy, Lebanon, Singapore, Sweden, South Korea, South Africa, Canada and Spain.

Foreigners who travel from or through any of these countries in the last 14 days will not be allowed to enter the country, Sandoval said.

BI officers in the airports were instructed to do a 100 percent passport inspection to make sure that the travel histories of arriving passengers are clear, she added.

Filipino nationals who travel from these countries are exempted from the ban but they will be referred to the one-stop shop for testing and to strictly implement a 14-day quarantine.

Seafarers are only allowed to disembark in the Port of Manila, and will be transported by their shipping agents to the designated quarantine facility under strict monitoring of the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), the Department of Transportation said.

Filipino seafarers will undergo their mandatory quarantine at facilities assigned by the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) and at the Athlete’s Village in New Clark City at the expense of the government.

Although the United States has also reported cases of the new coronavirus variant, the BI said it is still awaiting word from the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Disease about its inclusion in the travel ban.

Cebu Pacific Air (CEB) announced it will not accept foreign nationals who originated from, transited through, or visited within 14 days prior to arrival in the Philippines, any of the countries specified in the travel ban.

CEB said customers affected by the temporary travel ban may avail themselves of free rebooking within 90 days, a full refund, or add the value of their ticket to a travel fund valid for two years.

Sulu has requested from the national government additional watercraft to secure its borders when it implements a two-week lockdown in January to stop the spread of the more transmissible coronavirus variant from Sabah, Malaysia.

Sulu Gov. Abdusakur Tan told the ANC news channel that his province’s current water assets were not enough to monitor its sea borders with nearby Sabah in Malaysia, where the new COVID-19 variant was found.

Also on Thursday, the National Task Force on Coronavirus Disease 2019 (NTF-Covid-19) denied reports that it brought at least 100 foreigners and Filipinos to a dilapidated hotel in Batangas for the required 14-day mandatory quarantine for passengers arriving from abroad.

The statement came as some of the passengers complained that the hotel they were supposed to stay in had no running water and proper facilities for quarantine.

In a Laging Handa briefing, NTF Deputy Chief Implementer Vince Dizon identified the hotel as Canyon Woods in Batangas.

“While it is not a five-star hotel, it’s not unkempt and it’s decent because we’ve been using it as a quarantine facility for our overseas Filipino workers,” he said in Filipino.

Dizon also said the 14-day quarantine is not some form of “hostage-taking” but part of a stricter measure to prevent the new coronavirus variant from entering the country.

Dizon said foreigners and Filipinos arriving from abroad starting Dec. 30 are required to complete a 14-day mandatory quarantine in a government-accepted facility, regardless of a negative RT-PCR test.

The government would also shoulder the hotel fees.

He, however, said should the passenger opt to book their preferred hotels, the accommodation expense will be shouldered by them.

“This option was accepted by the other passengers that’s why last night, almost half of the 100 people brought to Canyon Woods were transported to their chosen hotels and the transportation was provided by us,” he said.

The NTF, Dizon said, had asked for understanding and patience in the wake of the incident.

Most of the passengers brought to Canyon Woods on Dec. 30 are returning overseas Filipinos, a few OFWs, and foreigners.

On Dec. 30, over 4,000 passengers arrived at the Ninoy Aquino

International Airport, some of whom were from areas with reported cases of the new Covid-19 variant, such as Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, and the Netherlands.

Despite the volume of returnees and foreigners who landed on Wednesday, Dizon assured the public that everyone was billeted to a quarantine facility, which is closely monitored by the government.

“We have not yet received reports of people slipping past the quarantine requirement... We are always monitoring to keep out the new strain,” he said.

China, meanwhile, confirmed its first case of a new coronavirus variant that was recently detected in Britain, health officials said.

The new strain, which experts say potentially spreads faster than the original variant, has prompted travel restrictions on the UK by more than 50 countries -- including China, where the coronavirus first emerged late last year.

The first patient in China with the new variant is a 23-year-old woman from Shanghai who arrived from Britain on Dec. 14, the Chinese Center for Disease Control said in a research note published Wednesday.

She was hospitalized on arrival as she showed mild symptoms. Health experts conducted a genetic sequencing of her test samples on Dec. 24 “due to travel history from the UK and abnormalities in nucleic acid test results,” the China CDC said.

The patient was found to have a strain different to those found in Shanghai or Wuhan earlier, and further testing confirmed it was the variant known as B.1.1.7 that has been spreading in the UK since October.

Health authorities have carried out contact-tracing, the CDC statement added.

China suspended direct flights to and from Britain indefinitely on Dec. 24 because of the new strain.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said the new variant “may be up to 70 percent more transmissible than the original version of the disease.”

But there is no evidence so far to suggest that infection with the new variant is more likely to lead to a severe case of Covid-19 or increase the risk of death.

China has granted “conditional” market approval to a Sinopharm vaccine with a reported 79 percent efficacy rate against COVID-19, health authorities said Thursday, a major stride towards inoculating the world’s largest population.

The Sinopharm jab, which has surged ahead of a raft of Chinese competitors during Phase 3 trials, could signal a breakthrough in the battle to squash the pandemic in Asia.

Around 4.5 million doses of largely unproven emergency vaccines made locally have already been given to health workers and other workers destined for overseas jobs, according to authorities.

On Wednesday, Sinopharm announced its leading candidate had a 79.34 percent efficacy rate.

That is lower than rival jabs developed in the West by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna -- with 95 and 94 percent rates respectively -- but still a game-changer for China.

Chen Shifei, deputy commissioner of the National Medical Products Administration, on Thursday told reporters his agency had granted a “conditional listing” to Sinopharm’s vaccine.

A conditional listing helps hustle emergency drugs to market in cases when clinical trials are yet to meet normal standards but indicate they will work.

“The known benefits of Sinopharm’s new inactivated coronavirus vaccine are bigger than the known and potential risks,” Chen added.

The listing allows the government to “extend vaccination to high-risk groups, those susceptible to a severe viral infection... and the elderly,” Zeng Yixin, Vice Minister of the National Health Commission told reporters.

But China faces the unprecedented challenge of getting vaccines to a population of more than 1.3 billion people.

“The general view is you have to vaccinate 60 to 70 percent to establish universal protection,” Zeng added.

Beijing plans to vaccinate millions this winter in the run-up to Lunar New Year.

“I’m convinced -- and please be convinced -- that the production of COVID-19 vaccines can meet the demand of large-scale vaccination we have in China,” Mao Junfeng, head of Consumer Goods Industry Department added.

China has also pledged to swiftly share its vaccines with lesser developed countries at a “fair price” as it seeks global leadership in the recovery from a pandemic which first emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan a year ago.

As a winter wave of virus infections batters much of the world, spurring fresh lockdowns and grim spikes in death tolls, attention has returned to China’s management of the pandemic.

China has broadly stamped out the virus inside its borders, introducing swift local lockdowns and mass testing when cases emerge.

Beijing has been at pains to retool the pandemic story in its favor, touting the fast reflexes of its Communist leadership in locking down the country and restarting the economy.

China is forecast to be the only major economy to post growth this year.

But it has been heavily criticized for closing down discussion and reporting that questions the official narrative.

On Monday a Shanghai court jailed citizen journalist Zhang Zhan for four years for her reporting from Wuhan during the early months of the pandemic. With PNA, AFP

Topics: Rodrigo Duterte , COVID-19 , Travel ban , United Kingdom , Bong Go , Department of Health , Francisco Duque III
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