MANILA, Philippines — President Duterte wants “a little more time” to allow further reopening of the economy or placing the entire country under the least restrictive modified general community quarantine (MGCQ), Malacañang said yesterday.
“The President is just asking for a little more time because, again, it’s a step by step process for him. There should be a vaccination rollout first; let’s wait and let’s see a good and successful rollout of the vaccination,” Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles said at a press briefing.
“Once he sees the start of the vaccination program, if there are people who get vaccinated, and then he would make the decision about the MGCQ for the entire country,” he added.
Nograles said the loosening of some restrictions and the reopening of industries not allowed to operate under GCQ are being considered for next month.
While President Duterte has deferred the easing of quarantine restrictions in Metro Manila and other parts of the country until a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available, the government would look for ways to further reopen the economy to address income losses caused by the lockdown, Nograles said.
He said members of the economic team have the leeway to review quarantine guidelines in GCQ areas to check what measures can be relaxed while maintaining health and safety protocols.
“There are ways and means for us to safely reopen the economy some more within the framework of GCQ,” Nograles pointed out.
“Our economic managers and the different concerned departments and agencies will have to work around that framework in order for us to address the needs,” he added.
Nograles said the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) would make recommendations for areas to be kept under GCQ or upgraded to MGCQ.
Under MGCQ, public transportation modes are allowed 75 percent of their capacity and venues for public gatherings up to 50 percent.
Protocols are stricter in GCQ areas, where only 10 people can attend gatherings and only half can be accommodated in transportation modes.
Metro Manila, Batangas, Abra, Apayao, Benguet, Baguio City, Ifugao, Kalinga, Mountain Province, Tacloban City, Davao City, Davao del Norte, Lanao del Sur and Iligan will remain under GCQ in March. The rest of the Philippines has been classified as MGCQ areas.
The National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) has proposed the placing of the entire country under MGCQ, citing the need to assist people who are experiencing hunger or have lost their jobs or livelihood because of prolonged lockdowns. Duterte rejected the proposal during a Cabinet meeting last Monday, saying the easing of restrictions should not be done until the COVID-19 inoculation starts.
Officials previously cited the need to further reopen the economy, saying more people are dying of non-pandemic causes. Quarantine restrictions in place since March last year have caused a total income loss of P1.04 trillion or P2.8 billion per day, based on NEDA estimates.
“There were several discussions already previous to the Cabinet meeting, so the President really had enough time to really consider his decision and it was a difficult decision for him to make. He was vocal about that. It was a difficult decision because you have to balance the health needs and the economic needs as well,” Nograles said.
“The President said, there’s a time for everything. There’s a step-by-step process that we need to do here... What the President wants is let’s see a vaccination rollout being implemented actually on the ground before we reconsider again the MGCQ for the entire country,” he added.
The Cabinet secretary said the IATF would continue to engage with mayors of Metro Manila to address concerns related to livelihood. The mayors had recommended the placing of the capital region under MGCQ.
Nograles said economic managers fully support the President’s decision. He said the government would be more confident in terms of relaxing quarantine measures if the vaccines are already being administered.
“There is wisdom in the decision of the President and it’s just right. If he goes by the strict timeline, the immunization program has to commence. It will help build up confidence, even consumer confidence, even confidence among our people that at least the vaccination has started,” Nograles added.
He also defended Duterte’s decision to put on hold the holding of pilot face-to-face classes until the COVID-19 immunization starts.
“The President acknowledges that efforts can be made to mitigate the risks of holding face-to-face classes, but as long as the risks are there, he believes the more prudent way forward is to hold this in abeyance for the time being,” he said.
The education department earlier proposed pilot testing of limited in-person classes in 1,904 schools from 126 school divisions.
The Health Alliance Against COVID-19 (HPAAC) said it supports President Duterte’s decision to reject the proposed relaxation of the community quarantine in March, saying the public is not prepared for it.
In an interview with “The Chiefs” on Cignal TV’s OneNews, HPAAC member Maricar Lim noted that shifting to MGCQ would also mean “shifting the responsibility of protecting the Filipinos on ourselves.”
Limpin underscored that many Filipinos are “not equipped or empowered enough” to deal with a more relaxed MGCQ.
“I don’t think we are actually ready. Most of our countrymen are not using face masks and face shields and do not maintain physical distancing. These are the minimum health protocols that we must follow and many of us are not doing it anymore,” she added.
She also cautioned that easing the quarantine could only lead to a spike in COVID-19 cases in the country.
“We see increases in the number of COVID-19 cases. We are more than 2,000 new cases (on Monday) and this is higher than last week,” said Limpin, who is also the vice president of the Philippine College of Physicians.
She said another surge in COVID-19 cases could cause “a breakdown in the economy,” thus defeating the purpose of imposing MGCQ.
Limpin added that aside from the regular COVID-19 cases, the Philippines also has to deal with new variants or “mutations of concerns” that were already detected in the country.
“We might be seeing more increases in COVID-19 cases. We already have 62 new variant cases and it is possible that the new variant is transmitted much faster than the standard COVID-19 cases,” she maintained.
Metro Manila mayors, according to Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) chairman Benhur Abalos, also voiced support for the President’s decision.
“As what we have always emphasized, the Metro Manila mayors would always defer to the wisdom and judgment of the President,” Abalos said in a statement.
“We are one with him, and would exert all efforts and rally behind him in combating this coronavirus disease pandemic,” he added.
Former Vice President Jejomar Binay also lauded the decision of Duterte but stressed that the situation would have been better.
“If only the administration acted with the same focus, efficiency and resolve early last year, we would not be in the sordid situation we are in now,” Binay said in a statement.
He also batted for economic relief and mass vaccination of citizens alongside the relaxation of quarantine restrictions.
“There is no financial aid. There are no vaccines. If this is our situation for the past year of lockdown, let us not doubt why our economy is the last to recover in Southeast Asia,” Binay said.
At a briefing, OCTA fellow Butch Ong said the President was correct to defer easing of restrictions, citing the recent spike in cases recorded in some parts of the country.
“Our trend since the first week of January is flat, meaning our number of new cases is not going up or going down. But this week, we saw a slight increase in new COVID cases in our daily reports,” he said in Filipino.
“It is a timely policy decision that we minimize the mobility of our communities before a surge happens,” he added.
In its report released on Sunday, OCTA said the average daily new cases in Metro Manila from Feb. 18 to 20 is at 563, up from the previous week’s average of 388.
Pasay City recorded the highest increase at 203 percent, from 28 to 86 new cases daily, followed by Malabon at 166 percent (from 12 to 32 daily new cases) and Las Piñas at 116 percent (from nine to 20 daily new cases).
OCTA also reported a continued surge in Cebu and other nearby cities, although it has slowed down compared to previous weeks.
Duterte’s decision came after the number of COVID-19 cases in the country rose by more than 2,000 cases in a day.
House leaders also said President Duterte’s decision rejecting proposals for a shift to MGCQ may have been right after all, considering that health authorities have managed to keep COVID-19 cases to a rather low level.
“It is better to err on the side of caution in easing coronavirus quarantine restrictions, rather than hastily ease quarantine restrictions in the country,” House Deputy Speaker Wes Gatchalian said.
“We support the gradual reopening of businesses to revive our economy, but the safety of our people must always come first,” the Valenzuela congressman, who is the Deputy Speaker for trade and industry, added.
“While the country is poised to receive its supply of COVID-19 vaccines in the coming days, the inoculation of the public does not necessarily guarantee immunity from the virus,” Gatchalian said.
In a statement, the House leader maintained it is “better to err on the side of caution because should another surge in cases occur, we might needlessly flood our almost in full-capacity hospitals to the detriment of the whole health care system.”
“We have to ensure that the COVID-19 cases in the country first stabilize to manageable levels before we begin easing quarantine restrictions nationwide,” Gatchalian said.
Health experts have warned that COVID-19 has already mutated into several strains, with the DOH confirming 18 more cases of the highly contagious UK variant, bringing the total to 62.
Rep. Precious Hipolito-Castelo said it would be best for both the national government and the public to achieve herd immunity first, or for citizens to be inoculated, before cinemas and mall arcades, among others, are reopened.
“The risk of allowing movie houses to reopen is too great for our people, especially considering that there are now some highly transmissible COVID-19 mutations like the so-called UK and South African variants,” the Quezon City congresswoman said.
She called on the IATF to “postpone the opening of cinemas around the country” until herd immunity is achieved.
Castelo said the IATF should listen to health experts who, like Metro Manila mayors, are against the reopening of cinemas and amusement centers.
“The experts say that because of the threat of COVID-19 spreading, the public should continue to avoid enclosed spaces like movie houses, where the risk is greater because moviegoers stay inside for hours,” she said. – Sheila Crisostomo, Janvic Mateo, Delon Porcalla, Ralph Edwin Villanueva