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Philippines bars travelers from countries with cases of new COVID-19 variant

The Philippine government will bar foreign travelers from countries that have detected a fast-spreading variant of the coronavirus that is believed to be more infectious.

Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said President Rodrigo Duterte approved the recommendation of health officials to extend the temporary suspension of flights from, and the prohibition of entry of all travelers coming from or transiting through, the United Kingdom until January 15, 2021.

He said the President also approved the recommendation to bar the entry of all foreign travelers coming from, or transiting through, 19 other countries or who have been to these places 14 days prior to arrival in the Philippines. The period of the travel ban is from December 30, 2020, 12:01 am until January 15, 2021, covering the following:

  1. Denmark
  2. Ireland
  3. Japan
  4. Australia
  5. Israel
  6. The Netherlands
  7. Hong Kong
  8. Switzerland
  9. France
  10. Germany
  11. Iceland
  12. Italy
  13. Lebanon
  14. Singapore
  15. Sweden
  16. South Korea
  17. South Africa
  18. Canada
  19. Spain
Guidelines

Executive Secretary Salvador Mediadea issued the guidelines to impose the new measures in a memorandum to the concerned Cabinet officials. They include the following:

  • Passengers emanating from the areas on the list or who have been to these places 14 days prior to arrival to the Philippines, who are already in transit and due to arrive before December 30, 2020, 12:01 am, shall be allowed to enter the country but will be required to undergo an absolute facility-based 14-day quarantine period, even if they test negative for COVID-19.
  • Filipino citizens from the areas on the list or who have been to these places 14 days before arrival in the country will be allowed to enter the Philippines will have to undergo an absolute facility-based 14-day quarantine period, even with a negative COVID-19 test.
  • Under the new measures, the Office of the President, upon the joint recommendation of the Department of Health (DOH) and the Department of Foreign Affairs, may impose restrictions on travelers coming from other countries that report the presence of the new variant of COVID-19.
  • Outbound travel to countries with reported new variants shall be subject to the exiting protocols of the Philippines and the entry protocols of the respective countries.

Under the new measures, laboratories at points of entry are ordered to submit the specimens of travelers from countries with reported cases of the new variant of COVID-19 to the Philippine Genome Center, Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM), and the University of the Philippines-National Institutes of Health. 

The RITM was also ordered to develop a standard operating procedure/response protocol for reports of new variants and strains of COVID-19.

Roque said during the afternoon briefing that several officials pushed for the travel ban on Monday night and the President's instruction was to ensure that Filipinos would be allowed to come home, even from countries covered by the travel ban.

The Philippines earlier suspended flights coming from the United Kingdom. The ban which took effect last December 23 was supposed to last until the end of the year, but the government decided to extend it until January 15, 2021.

The new variant of the virus emerged earlier this month in Britain and has already reached several European countries, as well as Canada, Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea.

In a briefing on Tuesday, Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergiere said the Department of Health (DOH) recommended to the President that the ban should be implemented during a government coronavirus task force meeting on Monday, December 28. 

While the list based on the World Health Organization's monitoring included some 18 countries so far, Vergeire said the DOH recommended to add countries that report cases involving the new COVID-19 variant. 

Detecting cases in the Philippines

Vergeire said the Philippine Genome Center is currently processing some 700 specimen samples of positive cases detected in November and December to determine if the new COVID-19 variant is already in the Philippines.

Aside from this, it is testing the samples of 85 passengers who arrived from the UK before the ban. Of this number 81 tested negative, 3 results are pending, while 1 tested positive. The positive specimen was sent to the PGC for sequencing. 

Vergeire said the PGC may take at least a week to process results and that the DOH targets to report the results by the first week of January. – with a report from Rambo Talabong/Rappler.com

Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers foreign affairs, the overseas Filipino workers, and elections. She also writes stories on the treatment of women and children. Follow her on Twitter @sofiatomacruz. Email her at sofia.tomacruz@rappler.com.

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