Año, Duque: One-meter distance non-negotiable
Department of the Interior and Local Government Secretary Eduardo Año and Health Secretary Francisco Duque III talk on the sidelines of the DILG’s ‘Bida ang may Disiplina’ campaign against COVID-19 at Camp Crame yesterday.
Michael Varcas
Año, Duque: One-meter distance non-negotiable
Ralph Edwin Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - September 17, 2020 - 12:00am

Duterte decides today

MANILA, Philippines — For Interior and Local Government Secretary Eduardo Año, the long-prescribed one-meter physical distancing is non-negotiable.

According to the guidelines issued by the Department of Transportation (DOTr) last Saturday, the one-meter physical distancing among commuters was shortened to 0.75 meters starting last Monday. After two weeks, it would be reduced to 0.5 meters and then further reduced to 0.3 meters after another two weeks.

Año stood firm on his position against reducing the distance between passengers of public transport, stressing that opening the economy should not be at the expense of keeping the riding public safe from COVID-19.

“We can open up the economy, but for me, sacrificing the one-meter distance is non-negotiable,” he said in Filipino at a press conference at the launching of the “Bida ang May Disiplina Campaign vs COVID-19” at Camp Crame, Quezon City yesterday.

“Based on experts’ opinion, the safe distance is one meter,” he said.

Health Secretary Francisco Duque III backed Año, saying that one-meter distancing in public places has proven effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19 by as much as 81 percent.

“You are going to reduce the risk of getting the virus or transferring or contaminating someone,” said Duque.

Adding face masks and face shields would increase the rate of protection, plus a physical distancing of three percent can increase the risk of protection to 96 percent, he explained.

“The farther you go, the more effective the risk reduction and the better protection rate,” he said.

Cabinet officials who are part of the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) will come up with their respective recommendations which they will submit to President Duterte, who will make the final decision.

The two officials did not disclose the recommendations as these were reached during an executive session last Tuesday night.

Año said it is now up to Duterte to decide whether the one-meter distance is going to be reduced or not.

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque made it clear yesterday that the relaxed distancing protocol implemented by the DOTr stays, pending the President’s decision on new recommendations.

“It was previously approved in the last IATF meeting last Thursday. So, until the President revokes it, I think it will be implemented,” Roque told CNN Philippines.

He confirmed “serious differences between two departments of government” over the matter, but insisted that the issue was approved with due consultations among IATF members.

“When the IATF approved it, there was no objection, there was no controversy. The controversy came out again when medical groups made an issue out of it,” he said.

Roque said Duterte brought up the topic on the reduced distancing requirement last Monday because of a letter from the Philippine College of Physicians.

He said he had asked Dr. Antonio Dans about the views of his group, which “seems to be giving opinions that the government is making the wrong decision.”

Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Gen. Camilo Cascolan meanwhile said they will wait for the final resolution on the social distancing rules before they will conduct surprise inspections of public transportation terminals.

‘Shocked’

Metro Manila mayors were shocked at the guidelines issued by the DOTr shortening the distance between passengers in public transport vehicles, as the head of the Metro Manila Council (MMC) revealed yesterday that they were never consulted about it.

Speaking at the Kapihan sa Manila Bay news forum, Parañaque City Mayor and MMC chairman Edwin Olivarez said the mayors were surprised by the DOTr’s sudden implementation of shorter physical distancing for the riding public without first consulting them.

“In our (MMC) discussion, we were left dumbfounded because there was no proper consultation with the 17 mayors. We were shocked,” Olivarez said in Filipino.

Personally, he said it would be fine to adjust the physical distancing to 0.75 meter. But if it is decreased further to 0.5 m and 0.3 m, he said: “That is a no-no!”

Citing Metro Manila as the epicenter of the coronavirus disease, Olivarez said: “It is better to defer the lesser physical distancing. Our cases (of COVID-19) have not plateaued yet.”

“We have to open the economy, but we should not compromise health protocols and the public health,” he added.

The mayor bared that fellow local government chief executives would object to such measures.

Experts favor DOTr guidelines

Several medical professionals, including two former Department of Health (DOH) secretaries, favor the “gradual reduction” of physical distancing during transit provided that there is strict public adherence to comprehensive health protocols.

This opinion was contained in a letter submitted to the Inter-Agency Task Force last Monday by health experts that included former DOH secretaries Manuel Dayrit and Esperanza Cabral.

They said that since government has “successfully increased and improved current hospital capacity, there is now an urgent need to revitalize the country.”

“We need to emerge from the current recession that has severely impacted livelihoods. This will enable our countrymen to work again, so that they can feed their families and support their communities,” read the letter.

The medical experts acknowledged that the country cannot build back the economy without increasing public transport capacity, which has been operating at only 20-30 percent of pre-pandemic levels “due to understandable fears of outbreaks arising from congested public transport spaces.”

However, they recommended so-called “Seven Commandments” for all public transportation which need to be strictly observed.

These are: wearing of proper face masks; wearing of face shields; no talking and no eating; adequate ventilation; frequent and proper disinfection; no symptomatic passengers and appropriate physical distancing.

“By imposing these strict measures, we believe we can gradually relax social distancing rules, in order to double or even triple our current public transport capacity, without compromising public health,” they said.

The group said that while the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends keeping a distance of one meter from other passengers to the extent possible, “it allows for adjustments based on context.”

They also cited a recent study published in Lancet, a leading international medical journal, that face masks and face shields can independently reduce the chance of viral transmission by up to five-fold and three-fold, respectively.

“Based on our review of the scientific literature and the policies and experiences of neighboring countries, we believe the evidence shows physical distancing can be maintained below one meter, so long as other health measures are also implemented,” the experts added.

Other signatories to the two-page letter were doctors Vicente Belizario Jr., dean of the University of the Philippines-Manila’s College of Public Health; Teodoro Herbosa, special adviser to the National Task Force against COVID-19; Michael Hernandez, department chair of the UP-Manila Environment and Occupational Health; Manuel Francisco Roxas, director of Philippine College of Surgeons Cancer Commission; Ma. Dominga Padilla, founder and chief executive officer of Eye Bank Foundation of the Philippines and Rontgene Solante, former president of the Philippine Society of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases.

Local and foreign business groups also backed the gradual easing of physical distancing in public transportation in a joint statement released yesterday.

The groups include the American Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines, Bankers Association of the Philippines, Canadian Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines, European Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines, Foundation for Economic Freedom, Information Technology and Business Process Association of the Philippines, the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry of the Philippines Inc., Management Association of the Philippines, Makati Business Club, Philippine Association of Multinational Companies’ Regional or Operating Headquarters Inc., Philippine Business for Education, Restaurant Owners of the Philippines and the Semiconductor and Electronics Industries in the Philippines Foundation Inc.

Citing the position taken by the group of Dayrit, the business group stated: “Given the above recommendations, we support the Department of Transportation’s plans to gradually relax distancing so long as the Seven Commandments are well communicated and strictly enforced alongside it.”

Jeepney modernization

Meanwhile, the MMC chairman said that while he supports the direction of the jeepney modernization program of the national government, “this is not the right time” to implement it.

Olivarez agreed that while it is the right direction in improving the country’s mass transport system, the government should give constituents breathing room, especially with the pandemic still afflicting every sector.

In his view, traditional jeepneys should still be allowed to traverse the roads, not just modern jeepneys.

“We have to modernize, but what the constituents need, especially those who were displaced and who lost jobs, is breathing room. The jeepney drivers would follow health protocols and guidelines,” Olivarez said, pointing out that difficult times have forced some jeepney drivers to begging and living inside their jeepneys.  –  Sheila Crisostomo, Alexis Romero, Emmanuel Tupas, Louella Desiderio

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