Essential not to travel for now
COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - July 8, 2020 - 12:00am

The travel and tourism industries have long prepared for the resumption of their operations that have drastically interrupted their business. All commercial air travels – from international to domestic flights – have been suspended in the Philippines, following the outbreak of the 2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

Since March 15 when the first lockdown was imposed, all of our country’s ports of entry have been temporarily closed down. Local and international airlines have parked the planes at the airports after President Rodrigo Duterte approved the lockdown as recommended by the Inter-Agency Task Force on the Management of Emerging and Infectious Diseases (IATF-MEID).

The IATF only exempted cargo and “sweeper” flights to pick up and return stranded foreigners back to their respective countries and to repatriate our own overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) caught in the lockdown in other countries.

After extensions for the nth time of the lockdown in Metro Manila and other parts of the country under varying degrees of quarantine restrictions, the IATF lifted yesterday the suspension of “non-essential” travels. This will cover only those areas in the Philippines like Metro Manila which have been placed under general community quarantine (GCQ).

Actually, our country’s flag carrier, the Philippine Airlines (PAL), Cebu Pacific, Air Asia Philippines were allowed to resume with passenger flights last month, subject to restrictions from the national government as well as local government units (LGUs). However, only PAL resumed with its international commercial flights last month. Budget carriers will not resume yet their commercial international services this month reportedly due to weak demand given existing restrictions. Cebu Pacific announced its international flights remain cancelled until July 31.

Reeling from the impact on their operations of these travel restrictions due to COVID-19 pandemic, Air Asia Philippines has let go 12 percent of its 2,200 employees, while Cebu Pacific is looking at reducing further its staff after laying off over 150 cabin crew members last March. PAL have laid off 300 ground-based administrative and management personnel. Based on its latest assessment, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) estimates about 570,000 jobs, including those supported by aviation, are at risk in the Philippines due to the impact of COVID-19 pandemic.

As of last Sunday, the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) announced LGUs in 29 airports nationwide have already gave their go-signal for the resumption of commercial airport operations under their respective areas. The Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) Terminal 3 will also open today to resume international flight operations.

With relaxed lockdown rules, airports and seaports have been partially re-opened but must strictly implement “minimum health standard” guidelines set by the IATF. Department of Tourism (DOT) Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat earlier disclosed many of these safety protocols were drawn up in consultation with the private sector under the umbrella of the Tourism Congress of the Philippines.

These health protocols will protect not only their passengers but also their own people from COVID-19 infection.

They are after all, their own frontline workers – from pilots and crewmembers – and the rest of workers in the airlines and travel sector along with the downstream industries of tourism that include transport, hotels, restaurants, resorts, travel agencies etc. But obviously, the “fear factor” of people getting COVID-19 infection is the single biggest challenge of travel and tourism industries.

A possible remedial measure is to implement a mechanism like a “health passport” that would contain a person’s health data to help detect possible “carrier” of COVID-19-infection. This proposal was first broached by Cebu Pacific vice president for marketing and consumer experience Candice Iyog which I mentioned on my Commonsense column published last April 29.

“A health or immunity passport is among possible measures,” Iyog disclosed as early as that time. According to Iyog, the proposed “health passports” can be color-coded to determine whether or not a person can be allowed to clear immigration based on his or her health history, including information they underwent COVID tests.

“We expect COVID-19 will change security screening, wherein health is part of safety and security screening,” Iyog conceded. “Definitely, the new normal will be contactless with high digital adoption,” Iyog pointed out.

In my Zoom Webinar Kapihan sa Manila Bay breakfast news forum last Wednesday, Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. literally took interest on the proposed “health passport” when I brought this to his attention. “That seems to be a good thing. That’s very interesting,” Locsin quipped.

“I just hope who can tell us how can a government put down any amount of data attached to your electronic passport and expect other countries to respect it as being reliable and if there is a way to judge for a government which country has a reliable data for their travelling nationals. And give us example,” Locsin pointed out.

Last Friday, the Philippine government led by the DFA started to implement our own version of “green lanes” at the airports to facilitate Filipino seamen go back to their respective jobs aboard international ships. The “green lanes” serve as certification by Philippine government the seamen who went through it were tested negative from COVID-19 infection and therefore healthy and safe to travel. Upon the initiative of the DFA Secretary, the “green lanes” will hopefully become the template of health protocols for our nationals going out as well as foreign nationals coming in.

The country’s chief diplomat believes the proposed “health passport” should be a good initiative worth a study by the IATF. While there is no vaccine yet against this deadly virus, “non-essential” travels will remain essential protection for people to stay COVID-free.

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