WHO cautions against easing local travel controls

    WHO Headquarters.

    THE World Health Organization (WHO) yesterday urged the Philippine government to rethink plans to remove coronavirus disease (COVID-19) testing as a requirement for local travel.

    In a virtual press briefing, WHO Representative to the Philippines Dr. Rabindra Abeyasinghe said it is not advisable to remove reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) testing for travelers as this may result in areas with low risk transmission potentially seeing clustering of cases.

    “I think it needs to be carefully calibrated on where there is value for removing the requirement for testing,” he said, adding: “(Travelers can) potentially spread viruses to areas with low transmission and create new hotspots. (So testing) is important.”

    In addition, the WHO official said the threat of the new COVID-19 variants makes such testing critical.

    Abeyasinghe made the warning after the Department of Interior and Local Government said it has started consulting with local government units about the possibility of easing travel restrictions to spur local tourism.

    Interior undersecretary for operations Epimaco Densing said the DILG would formally recommend the lifting of travel controls to the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) once the consultation is completed.

    Instead of the RT-PCR test, Densing said the DILG is looking at having clinical testing at the terminal of origin and terminal of destination.

    “Upon arrival at the airport or seaports, you will undergo check-up. This is not just an ordinary check-up, we call it clinical testing,” he said, adding that tourists who would pass the clinical test will be allowed to board and will again undergo another clinical test at their terminal of destination, prior to entry to LGU destination.

    Citing information from health experts, Densing said travelers will be safe from the virus if they strictly follow minimum health standards like wearing of face mask, face shield and observing physical distancing.

    Densing said the DILG had a consultation with the governors and mayors yesterday but did not say how the local government officials responded to the idea.

    Reacting to the DILG move, Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat said: “The DOT has long been advocating for the simplification of travel requirements as this is critical in making domestic tourism work.”

    Puyat noted that 81 percent of respondents of the “The Evolving Landscape of Domestic Tourism” survey considered the varying LGU requirements as the factor that makes travel most inconvenient.

    Among the common travel requirements required by LGUs are the medical certificate, other types of pre-travel or test-on-arrival COVID tests and quarantine.

    “Streamlining entry requirements will make travelling in the new normal more convenient while also protecting the public’s safety and well-being. Furthermore, this will also help in preventing the entry of those who falsify documents by standardizing validation protocols,” Puyat said.

    The IATF will revisit and determine which areas in the country would be placed under general community quarantine (GCQ) and modified general community quarantine (MGCQ), Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles said after President Duterte on Monday night rejected proposals to put the country under the least strict community restriction.

    Nograles said everyone in the Cabinet, including the economic managers who were behind the MGCQ proposal, supported the decision of the President to wait until after the successful rollout of vaccines before easing restrictions nationwide.

    Nograles said the IATF would again reassess and make its recommendations on the quarantine classifications for April sometime in late March, which he said would be based on the COVID-19 situation then and the rollout of the vaccines.

    Metro Manila mayors likewise did not object to the President’s decision, according to Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) chairman Benhur Abalos.

    “As what we have always emphasized, the Metro Manila mayors would always defer to the wisdom & judgement of the President”, Abalos, who is the spokesman of the Metro Manila Council, said. – With Victor Reyes, Jocelyn Montemayor and Noel Talacay