Thirteen million people in the National Capital Region will go back into lockdown next week, the government said Friday, as it tries to head off a surge in cases of the highly contagious Delta variant of COVID-19.
Experts have warned of an explosion in infections fueled by the Delta variant that could overwhelm hospitals in the coming weeks if restrictions are not drastically tightened in the crowded capital.
"We had to make this difficult decision in order to save more lives," President Rodrigo Duterte's spokesman Harry Roque said on government television.
The National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA), meanwhile, said every week under the ECQ would cost the economy P105 billion.
It would also increase the number of poor people by 177,000 and the number of unemployed by 444,000, said Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Karl Kendrick Chua.
Restaurant dining and mass gatherings have been banned with immediate effect and a two-week stay-at-home order under an enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) will start on Aug. 6 and end on Aug. 20, Roque said.
From July 30 to August 5, Metro Manila will still be subjected to general community quarantine (GCQ) with heightened restrictions.
“The heightened restrictions for the National Capital Region are more stringent compared to the GCQ with heightened restrictions of other areas,” he added.
Under the ECQ, only authorized persons outside their residences (APOR) shall be allowed to travel into and out of the NCR.
Only essential establishments and industries will be allowed to operate. Hospitals, groceries, courier and delivery services, certain manufacturing firms, business process outsourcing will remain fully operational.
Banks; veterinarian clinics; telecommunications; dental, optometry, and other medical clinics; power and energy; internet services; water and sanitation services; teachers; certain legal services can operate with a skeletal workforce.
Public transportation will be suspended, but Roque said it's possible for the Transportation department to allow limited use of public transportation.
The Philippines has recorded more than 1.5 million coronavirus infections -- the second highest in Delta-ravaged Southeast Asia -- including nearly 28,000 deaths.
So far, it has confirmed more than 200 Delta infections, many of them local cases, and there are fears the more contagious strain could tear through the nation like it has in neighboring countries.
Independent research group OCTA, which advises the government on its pandemic response, had called for an immediate lockdown in the capital, warning daily cases there could triple to 3,000 by mid-August if action were not taken.
"It could overwhelm (the health care system) in a few days at that rate," Ranjit Rye of OCTA said.
Duterte flagged the possibility on Monday, even as he lamented the country could ill afford it. Previous lockdowns have already shattered the economy, thrown millions out of work and left many families hungry.
Mayors in the NCR, which is made up of 16 cities and one municipality, had reportedly backed stay-at-home orders if the national government provided assistance to residents.
The NCR, also known as Metro Manila, and surrounding provinces were last locked down in March as record infections pushed hospitals to their limit.
As new cases eased earlier this month, the government lifted a ban on children aged 5 to 17 going outdoors for the first time since the start of the pandemic.
But two weeks later it reimposed the stay-at-home order as authorities confirmed local transmission of Delta.
The tougher restrictions come as the country struggles to vaccinate its population due to tight global supplies and logistical challenges. Only 7.8 million people -- or 7 percent of the population -- have received two jabs.
Metro Manila mayors met Friday to discuss how best to limit the spread of the Delta variant and how best to use the time during the ECQ lockdown.
Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez said the economy and especially small-scale businesses would suffer greatly under another lockdown, but said the ECQ was necessary to prevent the loss of thousands of lives in another COVID-19 surge.
He said it was important that some production in agriculture, industry and services be allowed to continue even under an ECQ to save jobs and income.
Lopez assured the public that there would be an adequate supply of goods in supermarkets and groceries during the lockdown.
Meanwhile, the business community said the announcement of the return to ECQ was not entirely unexpected, given the apparent spread of the Delta variant and the potential for a devastating surge similar to what Indonesia is experiencing.
“While this will further hurt our struggling businesses, we expect the government to mitigate the damage by increasing vaccine supply and ensuring that vaccination programs continue even under ECQ, as this is really the solution to controlling the pandemic,” the Management Association of the Philippines said.
MAP also urged the government to relax rules to allow all sectors to avail of vaccination, specially those given by the LGUs which are not covered by COVAX rules.
“We also hope that thorough contact tracing will be done to identify and isolate all cases to stop the spread of the virus. Otherwise, we will likely continue to see surges in the future, and we cannot afford more lockdowns,” the group added.
On the other hand, the Federation of Filipino Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry Inc. (FFCCCII) president Henry Lim Bon Liong thanked the government for heeding the call of the OCTA Group to prevent spread of the Delta variant.
“This is hard but necessary. Let us cooperate and make this work. Let us trust science and the government to accelerate vaccination. We hope the government can still help MSMEs and businesses,” Lim said.
Business leaders this week appealed for a week to prepare for the two-week lockdown.
The Philippines has extended the suspension of entry of travelers from India and nine other countries until Aug. 15 to prevent the spread of the highly infectious Delta COVID-19 variant, Malacananag said.
The travel ban exempts Filipinos who are part of repatriation efforts or special commercial flights, Roque said.
Travelers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand will not be allowed entry to the Philippines due to reported high cases of Delta variant in those countries, Roque said.
Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific said they would abide by ECQ restrictions that limit travel to essential travelers.
PAL said international and domestic flights to and from Manila will continue operating during the ECQ and heightened GCQ periods, subject to compliance with the travel restrictions and related travel protocols.
“We may have to reduce or cancel flights on certain routes as a result of the restrictions, and we will make the appropriate announcements on any adjustments once these are finalized,” PAL said.
Cebu Pacific said it will continue to operate flights as scheduled until Aug. 5.
However, passengers who wish to postpone their domestic flights and those traveling for non-essential reasons until Aug.t 20 may cancel up to two hours before their scheduled time of departure, and may select their preferred option through the Manage Booking portal on the Cebu Pacific website.
The Department of Tourism (DOT) reminded tourism stakeholders of the strict IATF guidelines.
In the interim week under the GCQ-HR, point-to-point (P2P) flights for leisure are suspended, effective immediately. However, returning flights are allowed for tourists residing in the NCR Plus (NCR, Bulacan, Cavite, Laguna, Rizal).
To prevent congestion in the borders of NCR, any type of non-essential travel to and from the NCR Plus will be prohibited.
Indoor tourist attractions may not operate, and staycations shall not be allowed. DOT-accredited accommodation establishments (AEs) outside of NCR+ may no longer accept leisure guests from NCR+ beginning Friday, regardless of the date of booking.
Those who are already checked-in for staycation in staycation hotels as of 29 July 2021, however, may continue their stay until the last day of their original booking.
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