By Arjay L. Balinbin, Senior Reporter
and Vann Marlo M. Villegas
and Gillian M. Cortez, Reporters

THE GOVERNMENT will add more routes and allow more public vehicles to operate amid a coronavirus pandemic once Manila and nearby cities go back to a more relaxed lockdown starting Aug. 19, Transport authorities said on Tuesday.

The Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) in a statement said the number of traditional jeepneys allowed to operate in areas under a general community quarantine had risen by more than half to 12,443 from the previous lockdown.

The number of UV Express units allowed to operate also increased by almost two-thirds to 1,621, it said.

The regulator increased the routes of UV Express to 51 from 47, while traditional jeepney routes rose to 126 from 63.

More than 3,600 public utility buses have been allowed to operate on top of 364 point-to-point buses, it said.

Operating taxis have increased to 23,776 taxis, ride-hailing cars were up to 23,776, and more than 700 modern public vehicles have been allowed to operate, LTFRB said.

Cebu Pacific and Philippine Airlines also said they would resume domestic passenger flights to and from Manila.

President Rodrigo R. Duterte on Monday night again eased the lockdown in the capital region and nearby provinces starting on Aug. 19 despite rising coronavirus infections.

He locked down the entire Luzon island in mid-March, suspending work, classes and public transportation to contain the pandemic. People should stay home except to buy food and other basic goods, he said.

The lockdown in Luzon was extended twice and thrice for Metro Manila. The lockdown in Metro Manila was later eased into a general community quarantine but Mr. Duterte put it back on a modified enhanced community quarantine from Aug. 4 to 18 after a fresh surge in cases.

Mr. Duterte imposed the strict lockdown after the healthcare industry warned that the government could lose the battle against the coronavirus.

The Department of Transportation said rail operators would resume operations on Wednesday.

The Manila Metro Rail Transit System Line 3 was expected to dispatch 18 train sets daily, the agency said in a statement.

Manila Light Rail Transit System (LRT) Line 1 will deploy 18 train sets during off-peak hours and 24 train sets during afternoon peak hours. The LRT Line 2 will deploy five trains sets daily.

The Philippine National Railways was expected to deploy 10 train sets daily.

The Transportation department said allowing more public vehicles to operate would “complement train services, which will be on a limited capacity to conform to physical distancing measures.”

Commuters without face masks and shields will be barred from public transportation.

Strict health and safety protocols will also be enforced to help curb the spread of the coronavirus, the agency said.

Also on Tuesday, the government’s chief enforcer of anti-coronavirus measures said prolonged strict lockdowns were unsustainable.

National Task Force chief implementer Carlito G. Galvez, Jr. told an online news briefing targeted lockdowns were more beneficial.

“The modified enhanced community quarantine is not a sustainable strategy,” he said. “The only way forward is the granular implementation of lockdowns,” he said, adding that strict lockdowns negatively affect the people’s livelihood.

Mr. Galvez said Metro Manila mayors had wanted a stricter general quarantine without any exemptions amid a surge in infections in the capital region.

The mayors had been given the autonomy to determine which areas had to be locked down, he added.

Mr. Duterte on Monday said Metro Manila, Cavite, Laguna, Rizal, and Bulacan would be under a general community quarantine starting Wednesday until Aug. 31.

The same will apply to Nueva Ecija, Batangas and Quezon provinces; the cities of Iloilo, Cebu, Lapu Lapu, Mandaue and Talisay; and the municipalities of Minglanilla and Consolacion in Cebu province.

Mr. Galvez said the government would hire 2,000 overseas Filipino health workers who recently came home.

Earlier this month, the presidential palace said 6,510 out of 9,365 open positions in government hospitals had been filled.

Meanwhile, solutions had been identified to address the problems raised by the medical community in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, Antonio Dans of the Philippine Society of General Internal Medicine said at an online briefing.

The creation of the One Hospital Command Center would cure the “weak coordination” between the government and private sector that almost sapped the health system’s resources, he said.

They also suggested that pharmacies, clinics, laboratories and other facilities be included in the center.

Medical societies also sought strict enforcement of health guidelines at workplaces. Employers should also consider paying for the COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019) tests of their workers.

Health workers overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients needing hospital care had called on the government to put the capital region under an enhanced community quarantine for two weeks.

The Philippine College of Physicians had urged Mr. Duterte to put Manila and nearby cities and provinces under a strict lockdown after the President kept the more relaxed general community quarantine for the region.

The doctors said the local healthcare system had been overwhelmed by the COVID-19 crisis, leaving frontliners burned out.

They also said health frontliners were getting ill from the load. About 80 medical societies were said to have supported the call for a strict lockdown.

Mr. Duterte later ordered the inter-agency task force to act on the recommendations.