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It's true that the people aboard 3 planes bound for Tacloban City, Leyte, on Monday, May 25, had not been tested for COVID-19, but Interior Secretary Eduardo Año told local executives not to worry.
"Ang ating mga kababayan kasi dito, kapag local stranded individuals at saka Balik Probinsya, totoo na hindi iyan dumadaan sa mga testing kasi nga we assume na nagkaroon na sila ng quarantine for the last two months na nag-lockdown tayo," Año said during Malacañang's televised Laging Handa briefing on Tuesday, May 26.
(For our countrymen who are here, if they're local stranded individuals of the Balik Probinsya program, it's true that they don't go through coronavirus testing because we assume they've been quarantined for the last two months that we were on lockdown.)
Año meant the enhanced community quarantine of Metro Manila and the rest of Luzon from March 17 to May 15, and the modified enhanced community quarantine after May 15.
The interior secretary was reacting to criticism from Ormoc City Mayor Richard Gomez, who complained on Monday morning about a last-minute notice from Año's agency of the "undocumented and untested" arrivals, whom the local government was ordered to receive regardless.
Ormoc and Tacloban are in Leyte province.
"Ito ay isang isolated incident lang na kung saan dito sa Leyte ay nabigla na mayroong umuwi doon na Balik Probinsya…at ang kailangan na lang diyan pagdating doon ay diagnostic screening at ipa-undergo pa rin ng quarantine," Año said.
(This is just an isolated incident that those in Leyte were surprised that there were Balik Probinsya beneficiaries who headed home there…and all they need upon arrival is diagnostic screening and quarantine.)
Año then warned local governments not to turn away OFWs and locally stranded individuals the national government would bring to their home provinces from Metro Manila.
That's because the assumption is these people have either been tested for COVID-19 with negative results, as in the case of OFWs, or been in quarantine for 14 days and have not shown symptoms of the disease.
"I'm warning you to stop that. You can't say, 'We have zero COVID-19 cases so we won't take in OFWs, or they should stay at the pier.' That won't do. I myself will go after you," Año said in a mix of English and Filipino.
He said the OFWs who will be ferried to their home provinces in the next 3 days have all tested negative for COVID-19 using the more reliable RT-PCR or swab test. They also have certificates for having completed the 14-day mandatory quarantine.
The National Task Force Against COVID-19, of which Año is vice chair, released guidelines on the management of locally stranded individuals (LSI) on May 13.
The guidelines state that the local government where the LSI has been residing must ensure that they have undergone 14 days of quarantine and are not a confirmed, suspected, or probable COVID-19 case, or a contact of one, before they are allowed to depart for their home province.
The local government of origin must also provide the LSI a medical clearance certification from the city or municipal health officer, and a travel authority from the Joint Task Force COVID-Shield.
Meanwhile, the receiving local government "shall not deny the entry of LSIs with complete requirements."
It is up to the receiving local government whether to place the LSI under another 14 days of quarantine.
Gomez must have received some wrong information that gave him the impression that the arrivals in Tacloban were OFWs, said Año, adding that he spoke with the Ormoc mayor on Monday night and cleared things up.
The Balik Probinsya arrivals Gomez questioned was a sudden development so the Ormoc City government was not notified early enough, the interior secretary said.
In a Facebook post on Monday, Gomez criticized the national government for its "carelessness" in implementing the Balik Probinsya program. He named the interior department, the National Housing Authority, and the Overseas Workers' Welfare Administration in his post.
"What happened to their protocols that they have been telling us to do if they themselves are not doing the right thing?" Gomez said.
The Balik Probinsya, Bagong Pag-asa program is a pet project of Senator Bong Go, President Rodrigo Duterte's aide. It is meant to bring home and resettle local migrants from Metro Manila to their home provinces. The program rehashes existing government policies, now placed under a new brand.
As of Tuesday, the Philippines has a total of 14,669 coronavirus cases, with 886 deaths and 3,412 recoveries. – Rappler.com
JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.