Palace: Inbound travel restricted to stop surge

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    PALACE officials yesterday said government has been forced to temporarily suspend inbound travel of foreigners and returning overseas Filipinos to contain the peaking of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases, especially of new variant infections which have been detected mostly from returning Filipinos.

    National Task Force Against the Coronavirus disease (NTF COVID-19) chief implementer Carlito Galvez Jr. and Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles, in separate interviews, also said isolation facilities for overseas Filipinos and overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) are already swamped.

    Galvez, during the Kapihan sa Manila Bay forum, said an estimated 4,000 OFWs have been arriving in the country, which has already overwhelmed state isolation facilities and accredited hotels in Metro Manila.

    Galvez said the government is now sending OFWs to isolation centers or hotels in Central Luzon (Region 3) and Calabarzon (Region 4-A).

    Nograles, in an interview with TV5, explained OFWs who return to the country are required to go on a seven-day quarantine period before they are allowed to go home to their families.

    Delfin Lorenzana, chairman of the NTF COVID-19, on Tuesday night issued Memorandum Circular No. 5 which limits inbound arrivals to 1,500 OFWs per day and temporarily prohibits the entry of non-OFWs from March 20 to April 19.

    Presidential spokesman Harry Roque, in a video message sent to the media, said exempted from the ban are foreign diplomats or officials of foreign governments, those escorting medical repatriations and those involved in emergency or humanitarian situations.

    “The NTF, however, provided exemptions. These include: holders of 9 (e) visas, medical repatriation and their escorts duly endorsed by the Department of Foreign Affairs – Office of the Undersecretary for Migrant Workers Affairs (DFA-OUMWA) or the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration, distressed returning overseas Filipinos duly endorsed by the DFA-OUMWA; and emergency, humanitarian, and other cases as approved by the NTF,” Roque said.

    Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III welcomed the NTF COVID-19 decision, saying it will help decongest hotel quarantine facilities being used by returning OFWs.

    “It will be a big help for OWWA because we are already running out of hotels. We are already going to as far as Tagaytay and Batangas in search for hotels to serve as quarantine facilities,” said Bello, adding: “This will unburden OWWA because we have 2,000 arrivals per day. It will greatly help for the number of arrivals to be reduced so that we can easily find accommodation for them.”

    Aside from decongesting quarantine facilities, he said reducing the number of arriving OFWs will also help slow down the draining of OWWA’s funds.

    OWWA Administrator Hans Leo Cacdac has said their budget for 2021 may already run out by the middle of the year due to the expenses needed in aiding arriving OFWs.

    Asked who will determine the 1,500 OFWs to be allowed entry daily, Bello said it is already up to their labor attachés.

    MINORS

    Nograles yesterday said a clearer guideline on the limited travel of minors would be issued to avoid any confusion especially during the Lenten break when families are expected to travel to the provinces or their pre-booked destinations for the Lenten break.

    He said that as far as he knows, minors are still allowed to join families in their travel especially to areas with “tourism bubbles” such as Boracay and Bohol in the Visayas, and some parts of Palawan and Quezon. Tourism bubble allows domestic tourists to make pre-booked visits and tours usually in areas that are already under the modified general community quarantine.

    Nograles said travelling with minors will likely be allowed if they use private vehicles, travel from point to point, and if the local government unit (LGU) of their travel destination allows the entry of minors.

    He said the Interagency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) will meet this week and take up the issue.

    NTF Spokesman Restituto Padilla said the ban on minors cover only those in Metro Manila to prevent kids from moving around, including going to malls and crowded places.

    “The minors can travel out of Metro Manila via land, air, sea transport with their families,” he said in a text message.

    OFF LIMITS

    Stricter measures are being implemented at the PNP national headquarters in Camp Crame amid an upsurge of COVID-19 infections among its personnel, police officer-in-charge Lt. Gen. Guillermo Eleazar said.

    In consultation with PNP chief Gen. Debold Sinas who remains in quarantine after contracting the virus, Eleazar said he has approved a modified work arrangement that includes work from home setups for civilian employees.

    “All heads of offices at NHQ (national headquarters) were already directed to start conducting assessment on how to implement this modified work arrangement without compromising their respective offices’ administrative works and outputs,” said Eleazar.

    He said the PNP is assessing if the alternative work arrangement can be implemented for policemen, though he said this may be difficult given the nature of their job – law enforcement and implementation of quarantine protocols and curfew hours.

    Eleazar said a similar study is being conducted to assess if there is a need to continue face-to-face classes or to shift to virtual or online classes for mandatory schooling and training of policemen.

    He also said the PNP is also crafting guidelines that would modify command activities in NHQ that would introduce a combination of physical and virtual attendance.

    Eleazar said visits to offices and quartering units in Camp Crame will also be limited to “work-related and in the exercise of official functions only.”

    “We are also awaiting for the recommendations on whether or not to continue, suspend, modify or limit the number of clients availing of frontline services at NHQ such as securing police clearance, renewing permits and other transactions,” he said.

    Eleazar said the strict measures will only apply in Camp Crame. Regional units such as the National Capital Region Police Office have been given the discretion to craft and implement their own protocols.

    Due to the upsurge of COVID-19 cases in Camp Crame, Eleazar said the PNP is in the process of identifying buildings and facilities in Camp Crame to house personnel who were infected or suspected to be infected by COVID-19.

    At present, the PNP has one COVID-19 facility in Camp Crame – the Kiangan Building where Sinas is under quarantine.

    The PNP yesterday reported 167 new COVID-19 cases among PNP personnel, bringing to 12,510 the total number of infections in the police force.

    Meanwhile, the office of the PNP Press Corps inside Camp Crame was temporarily closed yesterday after a camera man of a TV station tested positive for COVID-19.

    The cameraman was among the 26 mediamen who were subjected to COVID-19 test last Monday after attending Sinas’ press conference last week, or three days after he learned he was infected.

    “The press corps office is temporarily closed for disinfection,” said PNP spokesman Brig. Gen. Ildebrandi Usana.

    He said personnel of the PNP-Public Information Office were also required take swab tests, especially those who had direct contact with (members of) the PNP Press Corps.

    Relatedly, the National Police Commission central office in Quezon was placed on a three-day lockdown, starting yesterday, after several of its employees tested positive for COVID-19.

    NAPOLCOM vice chairman Vitaliano Aguirre II said the lockdown will pave the way for disinfection of the office and contact tracing activity.

    Senate President Vicente Sotto III yesterday extended the lockdown of the Senate building until next week to allow the full disinfection of all offices.

    Senate majority leader Juan Miguel Zubiri said that as of Wednesday, 24 Senate employees are afflicted with COVID-19. Likewise, he said 80 employees of the Government Service Insurance System have also tested positive of the virus.

    Sotto said the Senate will be closed starting Wednesday night up to March 23. He said he will seek the advice of health authorities before making a decision if the Senate can already reopen on Wednesday.

    Sotto said plenary sessions on Monday and Tuesday next week are also cancelled.

    At the Batasan Pambansa complex, the House leadership will not place the complex under lockdown as its COVID-19 situation remains manageable, according to Secretary General Mark Leandro Mendoza, noting that there are only 29 active cases at the Lower House.

    “Most of the cases are mild so it’s manageable because we do antigen test every day,” he told reporters in Filipino, adding that Speaker Lord Allan Jay Velasco has already ordered him to ensure that only 30 percent of employees will be required to physically go to work to ensure distancing.

    The plenary session will also be limited to three hours, from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., to allow employees and lawmakers and their staff to go home early and avoid contracting the virus.

    Mendoza said all committee hearings will be strictly conducted through videoconferencing and other physical activities like the flag-raising ceremony every Monday will also be stopped for now.

    The number of active cases which represents about two percent of the House’s population excludes Reps. Michael Defensor (Anakalusugan party-list) and Negros Oriental Rep. Jocelyn Limkaichong, who recently both tested positive for the virus.

    Out of the 29 cases, Mendoza said 10 are on the way to full recovery and are just waiting for their doctors’ clearances.

    Duque did not rule out the possibility of recommending a stricter lockdown in Metro Manila given the rising number of cases.

    “If nothing changes and the cases continue to rise, then the possibility of a more widespread lockdown is certainly strong,” said Duque, adding: “If the experts say that we need to have a more widespread lockdown, then we will recommend it to the President.”

    The health chief said their recommendations will largely depend on the data that will come in along with the recommendations of their technical advisory group and epidemiologists of the IATF.

    “As of now, I don’t see the need for a stricter lockdown in Metro Manila. I think the localized lockdowns are starting to yield some positive outcomes,” he said.

    In fact, Duque said he is confident that the situation will largely improve in the next week or two.

    “Hopefully, the reversal of spikes will be observed in the next few days. We are looking at about 10 to 14 days more before the impact is actually felt,” said Duque. – With Gerard Naval, Victor Reyes, Raymond Africa and Wendell Vigilia