MANILA, Philippines — The Philippines banned on Sunday inbound flights from seven more countries, on top of the seven African countries announced earlier, amid growing concerns over the new COVID-19 variant called Omicron.
The Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) added Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium and Italy to the "red list" countries from Nov. 28 to Dec. 15.
On Friday, South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Eswatini and Mozambique were placed under the red list immediately following the announcement of the detection of the new COVID-19 variant.
Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles, IATF cochair and spokesperson, said the inbound international travel of all persons, regardless of vaccination status, coming from or who had been to the red list countries and territories within the last 14 days prior to arrival to any port of the Philippines would not be allowed.
Only Filipinos returning to the country via government or nongovernment-initiated repatriation and "bayanihan flights" may be allowed entry subject to prevailing entry, testing and quarantine protocols for red list areas, he said.
Also on Sunday, Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr., National Task Force (NTF) Against COVID-19 chief implementer, said the government might reimpose movement restrictions as part of plans being considered to prevent or delay the entry of the Omicron variant to the country.
Plans to further lower the alert level in Metro Manila will also be reconsidered, Galvez said.
"Hopefully, the Omicron will not be able to [reach] us as fast as we have seen in Europe. As much as possible, we can minimize the effects of Omicron by preventing or delaying [its entry] to the country, but it is very imminent," Galvez said.
In the meantime, Nograles said passengers already in transit who had been to the red list areas within 14 days immediately preceding arrival to the Philippines and who would arrive before 12:01 a.m. on Nov. 30 were not covered by the entry restriction.
However, they will be required to undergo facility-based quarantine for 14 days and testing on the seventh day, with Day 1 being the date of arrival, notwithstanding a negative reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) test result.
Passengers who arrived prior to Nov. 28 and are currently undergoing quarantine pursuant to the classifications of their country of origin are required to complete their respective testing and quarantine protocols.
Nograles said passengers merely transiting through the red list countries would not be deemed as having come from or having been to said countries if they stayed in the airport the whole time while in transit and were not cleared for entry by those countries' immigration authorities. They are, however, subject to existing testing and quarantine protocols.
For Hong Kong, Nograles said inbound travelers from the Chinese special administrative region should comply with the testing and quarantine protocols for "yellow list" countries.
Meanwhile, the NTF clarified that Hong Kong was not among the countries and territories covered by the temporary suspension as it stated earlier in the day.
"We apologize for any inconvenience an earlier pronouncement may have caused," the task force said in a statement.
The IATF likewise approved the suspension of testing and quarantine protocols for countries and territories classified as "green" effective immediately until Dec. 15. Except for those coming from red countries, all inbound international travelers in all ports of entry are subject to testing and quarantine protocols for yellow list countries.
Nograles said the IATF temporarily suspended its Resolution No. 150-A (s.2021), which allowed the entry of fully vaccinated nationals of non-visa required countries under Executive Order No. 408 (s.1960), as amended, from green list areas.
Variant of concern
With Omicron already classified by the World Health Organization as a variant of concern, he said the
IATF had also approved several recommendations to strengthen the country's COVID-19 response.
These include enjoining local government units to be on heightened alert for increasing and clustering of cases and pursue active case finding; conducting contact tracing and isolating cases detected, covering both domestic and international travelers, and using RT-PCR testing to allow for whole-genome sequencing of collected samples.
The IATF also directed the Bureau of Quarantine and the Department of the Interior and Local Government, as well as local government units, to identify and locate passengers from red countries who arrived within 14 days prior to Nov. 29. These passengers are required to complete home quarantine for 14 days from the date of arrival and undergo an RT-PCR test if symptoms develop.
The Department of Health (DOH) was directed to ensure health system capacity was prepared to address an increase of COVID-19 cases, if any, while the IATF's subtechnical working group on data analytics was ordered to start preparing models to show the potential impact of the Omicron variant to prevailing protocols and approvals of the body.
Lawmakers earlier called on the government to further tighten the country's border controls and "prepare for the worst-case scenario" amid the Omicron threat.
"Authorities must put additional control measures in place, including enhanced contact tracing, rapid testing, and isolation, in all ports of entry nationwide," Deputy Speaker Bernadette Herrera said in a statement.
She said a "much faster system" should be in place to respond to the possible rise in COVID-19 cases in the country.
Barangay Health Workers Rep. Angelica Natasha Co said the IATF must set aside hotels or facilities where all the incoming passengers from those areas would be quarantined for 14 days.
The designated quarantine areas, she said, must be near airports and isolated from the general population.
"The better option is still a total but temporary travel ban," Co said.
Quezon Rep. Angelina Helen Tan, chair of the House committee on health, urged the DOH to study the "tailored expansion of [a] travel ban" and heightened imposition of quarantine measures that would depend on the country of origin.
Deputy Speaker Eric Martinez said the government must prepare for the worst-case scenario, warning that the Omicron variant was said to be more infectious than the previous variants.
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