HEALTH professionals have mixed opinions about the decision of the Department of Transportation (DOTr) to reduce the physical distance between passengers of public utility vehicles (PUVs), presidential spokesman Harry Roque said yesterday.
Roque said former health secretaries believe that the strict adherence to current minimum health protocols is enough to limit, if not totally prevent, the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19).
On the other hand, other members of the medical community oppose the new public transport physical distancing policy, which they said was premature and could lead to another spike in Metro Manila infections.
On Monday, the DOTr allowed more passengers to board PUVs as it reduced the physical distancing between passengers from one meter to .75 meter. The distance will gradually decrease in the coming weeks to .50 meter and .30 meter.
Interior Secretary Eduardo Año said the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) had a “long debate” over the relaxed physical distancing rules in all forms of public transportation and has agreed on a recommendation which the task force would submit to President Duterte during their meeting today, Thursday.
Año refused to preempt the President’s decision and turned down queries about the details of the recommendation. Duterte is expected to make the final decision today after his meeting with the IATF.
“We have cast our votes and came up with a recommendation,” Año said as he stressed that “at the end of the day, it’s still the President who will approve our action, if we are going to sustain the proposal of the DOTr or revert back to the minimum health standard, which is one meter,” he said.
Año said Duterte has requested the IATF to make a video presentation on the points of the health experts who are against the measure and both the DOTr and economic sector which are in favor of it.
Roque said the .75 meter physical distancing will continue to be enforced until President Duterte withdraws the DOTr guideline.
Roque said members of the IATF came up with its recommendation after six hours of discussion.
“It was a very difficult decision, it was a very difficult recommendation. But I’d like to assure everyone that doctors were consulted and not all doctors share the view,” he said.
Roque said among those consulted by the task force were former DOH secretaries Manuel Dayrit and Esperanza Cabral, and Dr. Antonio Dans of the Philippine College of Physicians (PCP).
Roque said Dayrit said that based on their own studies, the wearing of face mask and face shields, the practice of sanitation, and the prohibition against talking and the use of mobile phones inside PUVs were “determinative whether or not people can be infected in public transportation and not social distancing.” Dans and the PCP, on the other hand, “were the ones saying that we should not reduce the one-meter social distancing.”
Dans, a leading epidemiologist, said it was still too early in the pandemic to relax public transport measures because this could lead to passenger community transmission.
The Foundation for Economic Freedom (FEF), composed of business and professional organizations, said that gradually increasing public transport capacity, in conjunction with the “The 7 Commandments” of public health measures would revitalize the country safely and restore livelihoods.
The Commandments, according to FEF vice chairman Romeo Bernardo, was presented by the team of Dayrit to the IATF.
“We recognize that most Filipinos still need to move around to reach their workplaces, meet essential daily needs, and provide assistance to the vulnerable sectors. Limiting public transportation encourages more crowding and longer queuing, which lead to further exposure to the virus. People should practice physical distancing where appropriate but be given alternative options to relax this requirement where the risks are manageable,” Bernardo said.
He added: “We believe that the safe and gradual increase in public transport capacity is a critical step towards achieving the long-term objective of building a revitalized and more resilient Philippines.”
Bernardo said that to restart the economy safely, the government should focus on rebuilding national confidence through vigilance, discipline, and education through the 5T’s Plan, of which transportation is at present the key bottleneck.
The 5T’s includes test, trace and treat, which includes public and private collaboration to support the National Task Force’s plan of “Prevent, Detect, Isolate, Treat, and Recover (PDITR) and ensure safety of workplace.
It likewise covers safe public transportation to enable mobility of consumers and workers, and transformation which involves shifting mindsets to shared responsibility among government, citizens, and the private sector to enable coexistence with the virus. – With Victor Reyes