By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporter

Manila, the capital and nearby areas would remain under a general lockdown until people get vaccinated against the coronavirus, according to Philippine President Rodrigo R. Duterte.

“The Philippines would not be placed under a modified general community quarantine unless there is a rollout of vaccines,” his spokesman Harry L. Roque, Jr. said in a statement on Monday night.

Mr. Duterte sees the importance of reopening the economy but he “gives a higher premium to public health and safety,” he added.

Mr. Roque said the President had ordered his Cabinet officials to start the vaccination “the soonest possible time” so quarantines could be further eased.

The country’s economic planners had been urging the President to relax the lockdown to boost consumption and stimulate economic growth.

Mr. Duterte thinks shifting to a modified enhanced community quarantine in the capital region would not serve the county’s best interests, his former aide Senator Christopher Lawrence T. Go said said in a Viber group message.

The National Economic and Development Authority last week recommended placing the entire Philippines under the most relaxed quarantine level.

Metro Manila and the Cordillera Administrative Region were kept under a general quarantine this month amid rising coronavirus cases.

Also under a general lockdown were Batangas, Tacloban City, Davao City, Davao del Norte, Lanao del Sur and Iligan City. The rest of the country is under the lowest quarantine level.

Earlier in the day, Mr. Roque said the country’s healthcare system was ready in case the lockdown in the capital region and nearby areas was eased further.

Metro Manila has enough hospital beds to accommodate coronavirus patients, presidential spokesman Harry L. Roque, Jr. told a televised news briefing.

“There are enough beds to treat the sick,” he said in Filipino. “Second, the vaccinations will continue.”

The task force leading the country’s pandemic response at the weekend approved a proposal from economic planners to put the entire country under a modified general community quarantine — the most relaxed lockdown level — to boost economic growth.

“Cases might soar but the truth is, we are ready,” Mr. Roque said, adding that the government had been boosting the country’s healthcare system since the lockdown started in mi-March.

The OCTA Research Group from the University of the Philippines earlier said coronavirus cases in the capital region could reach as high as 2,400 daily if the lockdown is eased.

“If restrictions in the National Capital Region are relaxed to very loose levels, the region will be under a constant threat of a surge due to the increased mobility of people, reduced social distancing and diminished compliance with health protocols,” it said in a report.

The Cordillera Administrative Region in northern Philippines was placed under a general lockdown this month, joining Metro Manila and other cities with high rates of coronavirus infections after a new virus variant was detected there.

Also on Monday, Health Secretary Francisco T. Duque III said the critical use rate in public and private hospitals in Metro Manila, the virus epicenter, stood at 34% which was “low-risk.”

He said local governments were more equipped to contain the coronavirus after a year of handling the pandemic.

“We really have to move towards risk mitigation rather than risk aversion,” Mr. Duque told a separate online news briefing.

Meanwhile, President Rodrigo R. Duterte has rejected the Education department’s fresh bid to pilot-test physical classes in areas with low coronavirus cases, Mr. Roque said.

“The President has decided that there would still be no face-to-face classes,” he said in Filipino.

Mr. Duterte didn’t want to endanger the lives of students and teachers pending the government’s coronavirus immunization program, he added.

Limited physical classes could take place in August in areas with low coronavirus infections if the immunization plan goes according to plan, he said.

The government aims to start its vaccination drive this month. It will depend on the arrival of vaccines donated by the Chinese government after failing to take delivery of an initial batch of 117,000 doses under a global initiative for equal access.

Mr. Duterte in late 2020 recalled an inter-agency task force decision allowing the pilot testing of face-to-face classes after a more contagious coronavirus variant was detected in the United Kingdom and has since reached the Philippines.

Education Secretary Leonor M. Briones last week renewed her calls for the resumption of face-to-face classes, noting that more than 50% of students wanted physical classes to resume.

She said the Philippines was the only country in Southeast Asia that had yet to resume physical classes amid a coronavirus pandemic. — Vann Marlo M. Villegas