Business leader says improving trace-test system better than another lockdown

THE GOVERNMENT must be prepared to offer additional social support if it decides to implement a stricter lockdown in response to the new strain of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), a business leader said.

George T. Barcelon, the private sector representative in the Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council (LEDAC), said the economy would further decline if more restrictions are implemented, citing “a very obvious” expected economic contraction in the first quarter.

“The economy might slow down even further than this last quarter. This quarter the economy was buoyed up because of the December Christmas season. Next year, if that (more restrictions) were to happen, I hope that the government is prepared to extend more ayuda or social amelioration program,” he said in a phone interview.

President Rodrigo R. Duterte on Saturday said a return to a stricter lockdown is possible if the new coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) variant now spreading in the United Kingdom enters the Philippines.

The Philippines has imposed a travel ban on flights from the UK while the Health department has recommended a strict 14-day quarantine for travelers who have come from or transited through places with reported cases of the new variant.

Instead of a lockdown, Mr. Barcelon recommends expanded or “more vigilant” contact tracing and testing.

“The government must be prepared to keep a good tracking operation because of this new version of COVID-19. If this were to seep into the community quietly, before we know it, it would spread and that would force the hand of the government to have a stricter quarantine,” he said. — Jenina P. Ibañez

Immigration bureau reports 79% drop in incoming travelers

THE BUREAU of Immigration (BI) reported a 79% drop in the number of international travelers who entered the country this year as restrictions were imposed beginning mid-March due to the coronavirus outbreak.

  BI Commissioner Jaime H. Morente, in a statement on Monday, said BI data showed that more than 3.5 million passengers arrived from January to December 25, compared to the 16.7 million in 2019.

Of the total arrivals this year, 2.03 million were Filipinos while the rest were foreigners. BI Port Operations Division Chief Candy N. Tan, for her part, said 5,237 balikbayans or homecoming Filipinos arrived in the country this month after the government allowed the entry of former Filipino citizens and their foreign spouses and children.

Mr. Morente said the 13-million drop in figures is not surprising “considering the worldwide decline in international travel due to the pandemic.”

“We expect these passenger statistics to remain low perhaps until early next year,” he said. The immigration chief said arrivals may increase once coronavirus vaccines reach the country “and confidence in travel is restored.” — Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza

Spokesperson defends Duterte’s vaccine-related statements

MALACAÑANG Spokesperson Harry L. Roque on Monday defended controversial statements relating to the coronavirus vaccines made by President Rodrigo R. Duterte in a televised talk over the weekend.

Mr. Roque, in his daily briefing, said the President’s “no vaccines, no stay here” pronouncement was just fair and not a threat to the United States.

Mr. Duterte said the Philippine government will terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with its long-time ally if the US fails to allocate at least 20 million doses of the coronavirus vaccine developed by an American firm.

“You need our territory for the VFA, okay we will give that. But if you cannot even give us a vaccine, then you should have a VFA in countries you give vaccines first,” Mr. Roque said in Filipino.

Earlier this year, the Philippine government moved to terminate its VFA with the US but suspended this in June due to the ongoing coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.

The suspension was originally valid until end-December but was extended by the President last month, according to Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro L. Locsin, Jr.

Mr. Roque also defended the vaccination of members of the military, saying this was legal. The government has been repeatedly warning against the use of COVID-19 vaccines that are not yet registered and authorized for use in the country.

The spokesperson said getting a vaccination was a “personal choice” of the soldiers.

“The law does not prohibit anyone from receiving an unregistered vaccine. What is not allowed is the distribution and selling,” he said in Filipino.

Mr. Duterte revealed on Saturday that some members of the military were already inoculated with the COVID-19 vaccine Sinopharm made by the China National Pharmaceutical Group Co., Ltd.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in a statement on Monday confirmed that members of the Presidential Security Group were the first to get vaccinated to ensure the safety of the President. — Gillian M. Cortez

Gatchalian tells DepEd to ensure implementation of COVID-19 response programs

THE Department of Education (DepEd) should ensure coronavirus response programs under its 2021 national budget are implemented, a senator said, after President Rodrigo R. Duterte canceled the resumption of face-to-face classes.

Schools in low-risk areas were supposed to return to physical classroom sessions by January, but the plan was withdrawn over the weekend in light of the new strain of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).

“After battling with the coronavirus for almost a year, there are a lot of things that we still don’t know. For one, this virus can mutate into a new variant,” Senator Sherwin T. Gatchalian said in a statement, Monday.

“This unknown has led our President to cancel the planned localize limited face-to-face classes and I completely understand his reason for this sudden cancellation.”

Mr. Gatchalian, who chairs the basic education, arts and culture committee, had earlier pushed for the resumption of limited physical classes in areas with no reported case of COVID-19.

“Government has to use every arsenal it has to make sure that our learners will not regress, or worse, dropout of school completely,” he said.

“We have equipped DepEd with COVID-mitigating items in the 2021 budget. They should implement those items as soon as possible.” — Charmaine A. Tadalan