Duque: Can’t bar Chinese tourists amid virus scare

    Heightened inspection. Passengers from China wearing masks get checked for fever upon their arrival at the Incheon International Airport in Incheon, South Korea. Inset is one of the arrivals wearing what seems to be a jacket straight from a sci-fi movie.
    Heightened inspection. Passengers from China wearing masks get checked for fever upon their arrival at the Incheon International Airport in Incheon, South Korea. Inset is one of the arrivals wearing what seems to be a jacket straight from a sci-fi movie.

    HEALTH Secretary Francisco Duque III yesterday warned Congress that there will be “political and diplomatic” repercussions if mainland Chinese, especially from Wuhan, will be barred from entering the country as part of measures to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV).

    While a temporary ban on Chinese tourists is one of the options the government is looking at, Duque said it is not being considered now “because we have to be very careful of the possible repercussions for doing this.”

    “The confirmed cases are not limited to China,” Duque told Deputy Speaker Loren Legarda, who has proposed a temporary ban on mainland Chinese tourists.

    “If we do this, concerned countries, China in this case, might question why we’re not doing this to our countries,” Duque said.

    Duque appeared before the plenary during Question Hour to brief lawmakers on what measures the government is taking to prepare for the possible entry of the novel coronavirus (nCoV) in the country.

    Last Tuesday, the Department of Health convened the Interagency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases in its main office in Manila to try and keep the country free from the virus.

    Included in the task force are the Departments of Foreign Affairs, Local and Interior Government, Justice, Labor and Employment, Tourism, Transportation, and Information and Communications Technology as well as the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration, Overseas Workers Welfare Administration, Civil Aviation Authority, Civil Aviation Board, Philippine Coast Guard, and the World Health Organization.

    Congressmen on Tuesday unanimously adopted the motion of majority leader Ferdinand Martin Romualdez to invite Duque to attend the session and shed light on the various concerns of lawmakers under the Question Hour.

    “It’s very tricky and difficult issue,” Duque told the plenary as he vowed to take Legarda’s proposal.

    “I assure you, we’ll always put in mind, bear in mind, the recommendations that you so accurately articulated,” he said.

    Legarda, a former senator, said that since the government is clearly incapable of handling a crisis “wouldn’t it be prudent to be proactive and temporarily bar mainland (Chinese) tourists in any port.

    “I just value too much the health of the Filipino people,” she said, citing the case of Subic residents who protested the entry of a Chinese cruise ship that arrived in Manila last Tuesday.

    Legarda said she was not just echoing her personal stand “but I’ve also been asked not only by my constituents but also by other representatives who are shy to ask this.”

    Legarda said even Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. agreed with her that there may be a need to temporarily close the country from mainland Chinese tourists.

    “I even asked Foreign Affairs Sec. Teddy Locsin. He said in a text message, ‘Loren I agree with you, you may be right,’” Legarda said.

    The deputy speaker also cited the case of Chinese tourists who had to be retrieved by health officials from Boracay and returned to Wuhan amid the virus scare.

    Duque assured lawmakers the DOH has improved its capabilities in handling a possible spread of the virus by scaling up its border surveillance and equipping its quarantine officers who are in charge of isolating patients and subjecting them to further evaluation.

    He said the DOH’s Regional Epidemiology & Surveillance Unit has also “leveled up” and is now better equipped to respond in the event the coronavirus enters the country.

    Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano expressed appreciation to Duque for attending the Question Hour and allaying the fears of lawmakers and their constituents.

    “To hear you and to have a DOH that is very proactive and it is our pleasure that this is a joint initiative of the Executive and the Legislative bodies. Let us know whether it is a budget requirement or any legislation or even the use of our individual influence in our district that may help you,” Cayetano told Duque.

    Duque said: “Ours is the gratitude and appreciation in the House of Representatives for this opportunity to present to you the latest information and updates on the novel coronavirus.

    “Rest assured sir that we will do our jobs to the best of our abilities in case we need additional budget, I’ll be the first one to visit you,” he said.

    Sen. Francis Pangilinan yesterday said authorities should temporarily stop the issuance of visas for Chinese travelers going to the country, and not just suspend the visa upon arrival program to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

    “They only suspended the issuance of visas upon arrival for Chinese travelers. But the tours, delegates, businessmen, and the likes of (tourists on) cruise ships in Subic were still able to secure visas. The suspension must be for all,” Pangilinan said.

    The Bureau of Immigration on Tuesday said it has suspended visas upon arrival of Chinese tourists as a proactive measure to stop the spread of the virus. Chinese who want to travel to the Philippines will now be required to secure visas from the country’s consular offices in China.

    Pangilinan also scored the government for the alleged unequal treatment given to Filipino and Chinese travelers, noting the DOH said it would quarantine Filipinos returning from China.

    “But what is the rule for the thousands of Chinese arrivals? Why are tourists coming from China on board cruise ships as per Bureau of Quarantine and the Philippine Coast Guard not undergoing quarantine? Is it because they dole out grease money that’s why they enter the country as they please?” Pangilinan said.

    “Who’s in charge? Is there anyone? DOH and Malacanang must act to prevent tourists from China from entering the country while the virus is still there,” he added.

    Sen. Richard Gordon, also the chairman of the Philippine Red Cross, said the country’s ports and airports must have separate lanes for travelers coming from China so that immigration authorities can strictly screen them.

    “It is good that the country is still generally safe. However, for our country to remain so, we should be on our guard. All incoming travelers should be made to undergo tighter screening procedures. If, as reports said, the nCOV can be transmitted during its 14-day incubation period, we should conduct more than just thermal scanning on travelers. Travel history of passengers, especially for the past three weeks, should be disclosed,” he said.

    Gordon also proposed a temporary and partial lock down, out-rightly denying entry to travelers with history of travel especially to Hubei Province where Wuhan is the capital, and other hard-hit areas in China within at least two to three weeks prior to their arrival in the Philippines.

    “While the country should not be closed to foreign tourists, the Filipino people should be protected from the threat that incoming passengers with a travel history to Hubei, especially Wuhan, the ground zero, would bring,” he said. – With Raymond Africa