The League of Provinces of the Philippines (LPP) on Wednesday said it favors putting the entire country under a modified general community quarantine (MGCQ) in March, easing restrictions aimed at keeping the COVID-19 pandemic in check.
In an interview on radio dzBB, the league’s president, Marinduque Gov. Presbitero Velasco Jr., said governors would like to be given the authority, however, to impose lockdowns and change their quarantine status if the need arises.
He said public transport, particularly provincial buses, should also be allowed to resume servicing their usual routes.
MGCQ is the least stringent quarantine status. Metro Manila, the Cordillera Administrative Region, Batangas, Tacloban City, Davao City, Davao del Norte, Lanao del Sur and Iligan City are under a stricter general community quarantine (GCQ).
The National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) has proposed placing the entire country under the MGCQ starting March 1 to get the economy going, but University of the Philippines researchers who have been tracking the pandemic said the move could lead to a new surge in COVID-19 cases, particularly because the more transmissible UK variant of the coronavirus has already been found in the Philippines.
However, House leaders led by Speaker Lord Allan Velasco, the governor’s son, expressed support for the NEDA proposal.
""I personally agree with NEDA’s proposal to place the entire country under MGCQ next month. It is about time we safely relax pandemic restrictions to lessen the impact of COVID-19 on the economy," Velasco said.
"With vaccines on the way, we should start encouraging our countrymen to patronize businesses again while strictly adhering to minimum health and safety protocols," he added.
Albay Rep. Joey Sarte Salceda, on the other hand, said the reopening is best accompanied by a strong vaccination program for health care workers. He also batted for full restoration of public transport, saying this would spur economic activity.
The first COVID-19 vaccines have yet to arrive, despite official statements saying they would be here by mid-February.
On the other hand, Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Isagani Zarate said putting the entire country under a more relaxed quarantine status could compromise the safety and health of the public while there is yet no free mass vaccination and testing being done.
"The question is what is keeping the CoVid vaccines from coming when they should have arrived already according to the Department of Health (DOH)? Is the national government still waiting for preferred suppliers, like those vaccines from China, to come first so that they would be the ones that would be primarily used? Is this the reason why there are still no signed supply agreements for the vaccines?," Zarate asked.
"As early as March last year, we have been calling for free mass testing, serious contact tracing, and, after which, free vaccination, especially for the frontline health workers who should be prioritized. When the vaccines come and the immunizations start, then that is probably the proper time to talk about MGCQ," he said
The government’s Covid-19 task force is crafting guidelines for the possible transition to “new normal” in areas where there is no Covid-19 transmission, Malacanang said.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said the proposed “dos and don’ts” had been previously approved in principle by the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF).
Roque said there is o firm arrival date yet for the first batch of 117,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines under the COVAX facility.
“We are expecting the vaccines to arrive in the last week of February as we are still awaiting the notice from Pfizer if the vaccines have been loaded [on]to the aircraft from Brussels, Belgium,” he said.
Vaccine czar Carlito Galvez Jr. said the expected arrival of the first batch of vaccines was delayed by the absence of an indemnification fund for those who experience adverse effects after taking a COVID-19 vaccine—a requirement under COVAX guidelines.
Chairman Benjamin Abalos Jr. of the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) said they are supporting the government's move to reopen the economy affected by the pandemic but want it done gradually.
“There should be a calibration of both the health and the economic teams with the local government units and all affected sectors,” Abalos said.
He said the agency and the Metro Manila Council, the governing board and policy-making body of MMDA, are one with the economic team in the need to revive business activities.
"But we cannot do it hastily. It should be gradual. We need to help each other here,” he said.
According to Abalos, the MMC, which comprised the 17 mayors in the National Capital Region, also has one voice in the fight against COVID-19.
“If you open the economy, we also need to factor in safeguards. It is a big challenge for the government to help the economy get going while keeping the people safe and healthy,” he said.
"We cannot allow the government’s gains in controlling the spread of the virus be put to waste. We must balance the economy and health for everyone’s safety,” he added.