The Philippines has temporarily suspended a decision to allow fully vaccinated tourists entry in a bid to prevent a new, heavily mutated coronavirus variant taking off in the country where most of the population remains unvaccinated.
The decision is a major blow to tourism operators across the archipelago, which have been devastated by a plunge in international visitors and restrictions on domestic travel since borders shut in March 2020.
Tourism is a major driver of the country’s economy, accounting for nearly 13 percent of gross domestic product in 2019, when more than 8 million people visited, official data shows.
That slumped to 5.4 percent last year as tourist arrivals plummeted 82 percent to 1.48 million.
It comes as the government on Monday launched a three-day vaccination drive targeting 9 million people as young as 12 in an effort to accelerate the roll-out of jabs.
So far, the country has not reported any cases of the Omicron strain, which was first detected in South Africa and has since spread around the globe.
Manila announced plans last week to allow fully vaccinated tourists from most countries to enter from December 1 as it seeks to revive the nation’s battered economy.
But the government’s COVID-19 task force reversed course over the weekend as it announced the suspension of flights from seven European countries, in addition to an earlier ban on arrivals from several African nations.
“The IATF deemed it necessary to suspend the entry of foreign tourists, given worldwide concerns over the Omicron variant,” Bureau of Immigration commissioner Jaime Morente said Monday, using the acronym for the task force.
The government has eased virus restrictions in recent weeks as the daily infection rate hovers at the lowest level since the beginning of the year and the nationwide vaccination rate increases.
But the emergence of Omicron has raised fears curbs could be reimposed.
A health expert on Monday urged the government to re-impose the 14-day quarantine period for travelers from Hong Kong even after testing negative for COVID-19 amid the threat of the Omicron variant.
Philippine Foundation for Vaccination director Dr. Lulu Bravo gave the recommendation when asked if the Philippines should impose travel restrictions again.
“If the previous [quarantine period] was 10 days, we can extend that to 14 days,” Bravo said in Filipino during an interview on radio dzBB.
“Definitely, the RT-PCR testing should be done a few days into the quarantine,” she added.
Hong Kong remains on the country’s yellow list amid calls from the Department of Health (DOH) and other experts to impose travel restrictions on the Chinese territory.
Under the yellow list, travelers are required to undergo facility-based quarantine, but they may be discharged from the facility once they test negative for COVID-19.
Travelers who also provide a negative RT-PCR within three days upon arrival in the country should still undergo quarantine, Bravo said.
But Bravo observed that initial reports indicated that the Omicron variant does not cause severe symptoms.
“Even if it adapts easily and spreads easily, it does not cause any serious illness, the South Africans reported,” she said.
Also on Monday, Davao City-based doctor and Gabriela party-list national vice president Dr. Jean Lindo urged the government to ramp up vaccination drives outside the National Capital Region and to allocate more funds for public health amid the Omicron variant threat.
Lindo said the government must ensure higher spending for free COVID-19 tests, vaccines, contact tracing, genome sequencing and public health facilities.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has said that it is not yet clear if the new variant is more transmissible compared to others or if it causes more severe cases.
Around one-third of the country’s 110 million people are fully vaccinated.
The Philippines has recorded more than 2.8 million infections since the start of the pandemic, including over 48,000 deaths. With AFP