Philippines suspends all flights from UK from Dec. 24 to 31

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, December 23) — The Philippines is temporarily banning all flights from the United Kingdom due to the perceived threat from a new coronavirus strain first detected in the UK.

READ: What does this new coronavirus strain mean for you?

“President Rodrigo Duterte approved on Tuesday night, December 22, 2020, the temporary suspension of all flights from the United Kingdom starting December 24, 2020, 12:01 a.m. until December 31, 2020,” Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said Wednesday in an announcement.

“All passengers who have been in the UK within fourteen (14) days immediately preceding arrival to the Philippines, including those merely in transit, are also temporarily restricted from entering the country for the same period,” Roque added.

Meanwhile, passengers already in transit and those who arrived in the Philippines from the UK before December 24 will be allowed to enter the country, but they must undergo stricter quarantine and testing protocols, Roque said. He added they are required to complete 14 days of quarantine in the Athletes' Village in New Clark City.

Filipinos arriving home, outbound travel allowed subject to protocols

Also exempted from the entry restrictions are Filipinos arriving home from the UK even after December 24, the Bureau of Immigration said in a press release. They will still be permitted to enter the Philippines, but BI Commissioner Jaime Morente said they will be “referred to the Bureau of Quarantine and the One Stop Shop” to undergo mandatory isolation and testing.

Outbound travel to the UK is still allowed, subject to a number of requirements, the BI added. Travelers will have to present a confirmed round-trip ticket for short-term or tourist visa holders, as well as travel and health insurance. They will also be required to sign at the entry ports a declaration acknowledging the risks involved in traveling, including a possible delay in their return trip, the bureau said.

“I have instructed a strict implementation of our 100% passport inspection to ensure that we are able to detect anyone who has been to the UK in the last 14 days,” Morente assured.

He also appealed to different airlines and shipping agents not to board non-Filipinos who have been to the UK recently.

“We are constrained to implement this to ensure that our healthcare system is given ample time to respond to this latest development on the pandemic,” he said.

Preliminary results of a local study conducted by the Philippine Genome Center suggest the new strain has not been detected in the country. But there is no room for complacency especially during this Christmas season, Health Secretary Francisco Duque said Wednesday.

"Given the anticipated surge this holiday season, we cannot afford another factor or variable that may affect the transmission rate of SARS-CoV-2," Duque told an online forum.

The health chief also underscored the importance of the two-week mandatory quarantine as COVID-19 test results of inbound visitors are not always 100% accurate.

"Yung kanilang test pwedeng false negative kung medyo maaga-agang na-swab, di tayo nakakasiguro," he told an online forum.

[Translation: The result could turn out false negative if the test was taken a bit early, so we are not sure.]

The incubation period — or the time between exposure to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and the onset of symptoms — can take 14 days. SARS-CoV-2 can also be caught any time after a COVID-19 test.

Duque said an assessment of whether there is a need to extend the UK travel ban will be included in the meeting agenda of the coronavirus task force on Dec. 28 or 29.

Senators Frank Drilon and Ralph Recto earlier favored banning flights from the UK as a precautionary measure against COVID-19. Drilon said the country cannot afford to “procrastinate” this time, noting that its failure to impose a travel ban on China early — led to the widespread transmission of the coronavirus in the Philippines.

On Jan. 31, Duterte banned travelers from Hubei province in China or a day after the Philippines confirmed its first COVID-19 case. A few days later, he expanded the ban, barring the entry of all visitors from China, a decision he was once reluctant to make.

The first known patient who showed symptoms of the coronavirus disease was from China's Wuhan City. The first confirmed coronavirus case in the Philippines — a 38-year-old Chinese woman — was also from Wuhan.

On Saturday, the UK imposed a lockdown in London, southeastern England, and also tightened restrictions for all of England over the festive period. 

Since the movement restrictions in the United Kingdom were enforced, several other countries in Europe, Asia, South America, the Caribbean, and the Middle East have restricted travel from the UK and in some cases, also travel from other countries that have documented cases of the new coronavirus variant, CNN reported Tuesday.

The new strain called VUI-202012/01 -- first "Variant Under Investigation" in the UK in December 2020 “can spread more quickly” than other coronavirus strains, England's Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty was quoted by CNN as saying.