Philippines: Travel ban extended; steps up safeguards over Covid-19 variant as total cases tops 496,000

A passenger wearing a face mask and face shield for protection against the coronavirus disease walks towards a counter in the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Paranaque, Metro Manila, Philippines. - Reuters

MANILA, Jan 15 (Reuters): The Philippines on Friday extended by two weeks a ban on travellers from more than 30 territories and countries where a more transmissible Covid-19 variant has been detected, with the restriction also now covering Filipinos who want to come home. And apart from the 30 earlier countries - travellers from Hungary and UAE have been added to list.

The South-East Asian country, which has recorded its first case of a new variant that was first found in Britain, has the second highest number of COVID-19 cases and casualties in Southeast Asia, next to Indonesia.

The flight ban, which has been expanded from the initial 19 countries and territories and was initially imposed for two weeks until Jan. 15, will now be in effect until Jan 31, Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque said in a statement.

The prohibition also now covers travellers from China starting Jan. 13, and the United States beginning Jan. 3.

While the British variant was found to be nearly 70% more transmissible than the original one, there is no evidence yet that it is more dangerous.

The flight ban now covers all travellers coming from or transiting through the flagged countries, which also include Japan, Australia, Israel, Hong Kong, France, Germany and Italy, the statement said.

Previously Filipinos from those areas were allowed to come home on condition that they underwent a 14-day quarantine in a government-designated isolation facility.

Roque said exemptions to the entry restrictions may be issued by the government's coronavirus task force.

Meanwhile, the Philippines' Food and Drug Administration has authorised for emergency use the Covid-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, the first to be approved in the country, which has among the most coronavirus cases in Asia.

FDA head Rolando Enrique Domingo said the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which has shown a 95% success rate, could be effective in preventing Covid-19, with which nearly half a million people in the Philippines have been infected.

"The benefit of using vaccine outweighs the known and potential risks," he told a briefing, adding "no specific safety concerns were identified."

The Philippines has had difficulties convincing the public to use vaccines in recent years and an opinion poll last week showed less than a third of people were willing to get inoculated against the coronavirus, with concerns over safety.

It is due to receive the first batch of Pfizer-BioNTech's vaccines in the first quarter through the COVAX facility, on top of a deal it is negotiating directly with the vaccine maker.

In a new development, the Department of Health (DOH) of the Philippines on Friday reported 2,048 new confirmed Covid-19 cases, bringing the total number in the country to 496,646.

The death toll climbed to 9,876 after 137 more patients died from the viral disease, the DOH said. It added 551 more patients recovered, raising the total number of recoveries to 459,737.

The Philippines, which has about 110 million population, has tested over 6.77 million people.

The Philippines will now test all incoming travellers "from all corners of the world" that enter the country to detect if the passengers carry the new and more contagious coronavirus variants, Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said.

"We will now start to test (all incoming passengers to detect the presence of the new strains) just to make sure," Vergeire told reporters during a video conference on Friday.

She added all incoming travelers are required to undergo swab testing at the port of entry, and all those that test positive for Covid-19 will go through genome sequencing to detect the presence of the new strains.

The new policy is being imposed after the new strain entered the Philippines through a Filipino male with a travel history to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

She clarified all travellers need to be tested for the new variants and not just those from the 33 countries and regions in the current travel restriction list.

Vergeire said the Philippines could not impose a "complete travel ban for everybody," citing its negative impact on the economy. "We want to balance health with the economy that we have right now. It is not feasible for us to do that," she said.

Instead, she said the Philippines is strengthening its genomic biosurveillance to detect and isolate those people carrying the mutated strains.

"Our safeguard is the surveillance and the strict protocols in our ports of entry," she said.

What the country needs is to adapt to the situation, she said. "We need to prevent (the entry of new virus) and strictly implement our protocols," she added.

As stated earlier, The Philippines barred all foreign travellers from or transiting through 33 areas because of concerns over the new coronavirus variants until Jan 31.

Filipinos entering the Philippines from or who have been to the affected areas, are allowed entry but required to complete a strict 14-day quarantine at a government-run isolation facility even if coronavirus tests show negative results. - Reuters

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