HEALTH Secretary Francisco Duque III on Monday night warned that reducing physical distancing in public transportation could lead to 686 new coronavirus disease (COVID-19) infections daily and 20,580 cases in a month.
Duque initially presented the figures during a meeting of select members of the Inter-agency Task Force on the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) with President Duterte on Monday night. He said he would present the full study along with the Department of Health (DOH) recommendation during the IATF’s meeting on Tuesday afternoon.
“From one meter to 0.75, and at a 50 percent ridership, in other words, they would allow 50 percent of the population here in NCR – with our death rate, the new cases everyday will reach 686 per day. So if you multiply that by 30 days, you will have about 20,580 cases,” Duque said.
President Duterte had raised the issue during the IATF meeting on Monday amid the concerns raised by the health sector.
The Department of Transportation announced an easing of physical distancing measures in public transportation to accommodate more passengers who are returning to work.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said the IATF had approved the relaxing of the physical distance measure after no opposition was raised during the discussions last Thursday.
Roque said Duque was not present in the IATF meeting but he had several undersecretaries attending on his behalf who did not raise any concerns.
He said the IATF is revisiting the measure following the concerns raised by the health sector.
‘NO IATF OKAY’
Interior Secretary Eduardo Año yesterday said the DOTr acted on its own when it announced and implemented the reduction to .75 meter of the physical distance between passengers in public utility vehicles (PUVs) effective last Monday.
Año’s remark was in contrast to his pronouncement on Monday when he said that the measure was approved by the IATF on Thursday.
In a radio interview yesterday, Año said: “Hindi ‘yan dumaan sa IATF. Technically, hindi na approve ng IATF (That did not pass through the IATF. Technically, that was not approved by the IATF.)”
Año said Secretary Karl Chua of the National Economic and Development Authority made a presentation last September 7 and recommended to the IATF to “adopt and continuously update the latest health standards and best practices in consultation with health sectors.”
“What was approved there was the adoption of the recommendation of Secretary Karl Chua for the health experts and DOTr to study, if they can make changes in the health standards. That was what we approved,” he said.
But what the DOTr did, Año said, was to come up with operational guidelines that reduced the physical distancing inside public transportation units from one meter to .75 meter, and .5 and .3 meter in the coming weeks.
Año said the operational guidelines have to be first approved by the IATF before they can be implemented. “Nag-step forward sila (They made a step forward),” the DILG chief of the DOTr.
Año said the matter was up for review during yesterday’s IATF meeting.
During the budget hearing of the DOTr at the House of Representatives, Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade said the decision to reduce social distancing “is not a product of knee jerk reaction but also a product of research and a product of simulation which we have done.”
He told the House committee on appropriations that the decision was also approved by the IATF.
Tugade also said that commuters’ health and safety will not be sacrificed despite the reduced distancing in public transport since other health protocols will still be in place such as wearing face masks and face shields.
He said only two to four passengers will be added in jeepneys and buses and 40 to 60 passengers in trains.
The Metro Manila Council (MMC) said metro mayors were not consulted by the IATF on cutting the space for physical distancing among PUV passengers.
MMC spokesman and Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) general manager Jojo Garcia said the group was surprised by the DOTr announcement, insisting that the MMC should be consulted, or at least informed beforehand, by the IATF if new measures on social distancing will be imposed because local government units have their respective local regulations which might be contrary or does not go-along with the task force’s decisions.
The MMC warned that when situations similar to the reduction of physical distancing in PUVs happen again in the future, “this will cause confusion to the public.”
“What we want is the consistency of implementation of the measurement of social distancing so that there will be one rule to follow,” Garcia said.
MMC chairman and Parañaque Mayor Edwin Olivarez also said the MMC is opposed to the removal of the plastic barriers in PUVs, especially jeepneys, buses and tricycles.
“Given the new guidelines for physical distancing, I think, plastic barriers should be retained because with the new guideline, the commuters will be more prone to be infected with the virus,” he said.
Año said it appeared that the DOTr did not consult health experts before coming up with the decision.
“What’s important there is there should be consultation with health sectors, but what happened is that the DOTr came up with the operational guidelines without consulting,” he said.
Año theorized the error was due to DOTr’s “over-eagerness” to accommodate more passengers in public vehicles.
Año expressed hope that the IATF would recall the DOTr guidelines, as he pointed out that mass transport was not among the identified primary sources of transmission of the new coronavirus.
“If you reduce the one meter, you’ll sacrifice everything. We have to be consistent. We are enforcing it in residences, offices, in public places and then you’ll violate it in vehicles. That will have a consequence,” he said.
“If you do not observe that one meter distance, you dont know what is going to happen,” he added.
INCREASE SEATING CAPACITY
The National Center for Commuters’ Safety and Protection (NCCSP) yesterday asked the government to consider the seating capacity of modern and traditional jeepneys to meet the riding needs of the public.
NCCSP likewise urged the Department of Health (DOH) to release disaggregated data to show that the public transport is a source of COVID-19 cases.
The group said it has seen long queues in loading and unloading stations of metro trains.
“Due to the limited seating capacity, more commuters are becoming concerned that they are at higher risk of infection the longer they stay stuck in lines waiting for rides,” said Elvira Medina NCCSP chairperson.
The DOTr started to implement on Monday the reduction of physical distancing in public transportations. It was reduced from one meter to 0.75 meter in the public utility jeepney (PUJs), buses, and UV Express.
This new guideline will increase PUJs passenger capacity from one to two passengers or 10 to 12 percent according to DOTr.
Medina also called on the Department of Health (DOH) to show data that the public transport was pinpointed as the source of transmission in the most recent spike of cases as it causes unfounded fear among commuters who are eager to return to work.
“DOH has to release a breakdown on the COVID-19 cases, specifying the number of cases tied to the public transport. If we do not have the data, we are worried that there might be a call again to stop public transport and interrupt business operations once again. Our commuters need to earn a living. They are the backbone of our economy’s revival,” Medina said.
Medina added that with the reopening of more business establishments and the return of office-based work, a move initiated by government to aid in the country’s economic recovery, employees and workers are relying more on public transport vehicles to safely ferry them to and from work.
However, the seating capacity limitations still in place among public utility vehicles (PUVs) are posing challenges on the swift resumption of commuters to office work operations.
“But if we reconsider increasing seating capacity or increase the number of public transport units, I am assured that the commuting public and the transport sector will still follow the previously implemented protocols of wearing of face shields and face masks.
Public transport vehicles have also been diligent in their sanitation practices such as disinfecting after rides and using foot baths prior to loading in passengers,” NCCSP said. – With Victor Reyes, Noel Talacay and Myla Iglesias