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OFWs barred from leaving

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Filipinos bound for jobs in countries with reported cases of the new Omicron variant of COVID-19 cannot leave for now, the government said Thursday, as it prepared to add more nations in its “red list.”

The Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) said all flights bound for South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium, and Italy were cancelled due to the threat of the Omicron variant.

"Based on the latest Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) resolution, all international flights from countries with cases of Omicron are canceled. Since they are on the red list, all incoming flights are canceled and once all international  flights are canceled, there will be no outbound flights as well. Our [workers] bound for these countries are barred from leaving as per  IATF resolution,” said POEA chief Bernard Olalia.

The World Health Organization said Wednesday 23 countries across the world have reported cases of the highly mutated Omicron variant.

"At least 23 countries from five of six WHO regions have now reported cases of Omicron and we expect that number to grow," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in Geneva.

"WHO takes this development extremely seriously and so should every country. But it should not surprise us. This is what viruses do. And it's what this virus will continue to do as long as we allow it to continue spreading," he added.

Despite this, the Philippines would not stop deploying Filipino workers abroad, Olalia said.

“We have yet to receive information on countries who will be banning OFWs’ arrivals, amid the risk of the new variant,” Olalia said.

From Nov. 28 to Dec. 15, travelers from countries in the red list are not allowed to enter the Philippines.

Only Filipinos returning to the country through repatriation or Bayanihan Flights may be allowed entry subject to the prevailing entry, testing, and quarantine protocols for red list jurisdictions.

Olalia said Filipino workers taking their Christmas vacation from red list countries will be allowed into the country subject to health protocols.

Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire, meanwhile, said the government is considering putting more countries into its red list.

"We are going to propose additional countries based on the detection of this Omicron variant but as I said, we will need to balance it off with the case trends," Vergeire told CNN Philippines.

The assessment, she said, would include the incidence rate covering the frequency of infection in specific areas for a given period after the new variant was detected.

"This is still being studied. We have the IATF (Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases) later and we will be informing the public after," she said.

As of Nov. 28, the countries tagged in the Red List include South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium and Italy.

The Philippine government imposed an entry ban on travelers coming from those countries.

The Omicron variant, which was first detected in South Africa, has been classified as a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization.

Vergeire said the Bureau of Quarantine is also monitoring the health condition of more than 60 travelers to the Philippines, including three expatriates and a Filipino who came from South Africa and visited Western Visayas.

She said those travelers, who are all fully vaccinated, had tested negative of COVID-19 based on their initial test results, and have been re-swabbed and were isolated while the results are not yet out.

Aside from the four individuals, seven other travelers were also being monitored and now in a quarantine facility in Metro Manila before heading to Negros Occidental.

She said these travelers had arrived before the travel ban was imposed.

"What we did was we contact-traced them, we backtracked, we identified these individuals, and we endorsed them to their local governments so they can be strictly monitored," she said.

Talking to ANC, Vergeire also said a uniform travel policy would be unfair and disadvantageous to countries with a low number of cases.

She said it was important to classify countries as being under the green, yellow or red list.

The DOH has called for travel restrictions on Hong Kong, which remains in the country’s yellow list despite having detected cases of the Omicron variant.

A review of the country’s border control protocols will now be done every week instead of 15 days, Vergeire said.

She said the DOH sees no reason to change protocols as the current ones remain effective.

“Based on our experts' recommendations, we just need to be very cautious that when an individual is identified or detected with this Omicron variant, we need to have them complete the 14-day quarantine, we need to have them tested negative before they can be discharged,” she said

Also on Thursday, the Philippine embassy in Austria said Filipinos are being taken care of even as the Omicron variant is already there.

“We are always keeping in touch with them to check their conditions. Fortunately, they said they are in good condition,” Chargé d’ Affaires Deena Joy Amatong of the Philippine embassy in Vienna said in an online briefing.

Amatong said the Austrian government is implementing measures to ensure safety of its people and foreigners following reports of Omicron cases and the new surge of COVID-19 in the country.

She said Austria has enforced stricter travel measures to prevent further entry of the new variant in its territory.

In terms of livelihood, she said Filipino migrant workers remain well-compensated and are receiving assistance from the subsidized federal jobs program during a lockdown.

“So, in terms of livelihood, the impact is not that severe but there are still some Filipinos whose livelihoods are affected,” Amatong said.

Earlier, the WHO warned that blanket travel bans will not prevent the spread of Omicron, even as more countries rushed to impose curbs and the first cases of the new COVID strain were detected in the United States, Latin America and Japan. With AFP

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