PH imposes travel ban on more countries with new COVID-19 variant

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, December 29) — The Philippines is now banning entry of travelers from more countries that reported cases of the new COVID-19 variant.

In a memorandum signed by Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea, Malacañang said President Rodrigo Duterte has approved the expanded travel ban to address the threat of the new variant.

Aside from the United Kingdom, those coming from 19 more countries are prohibited from entering the country.

However, those already in transit and will arrive before December 30, including returning overseas Filipino workers, will be allowed to enter, but are required to undergo a 14-day quarantine period regardless of the RT-PCR test results. Meanwhile, outbound travel to countries with cases of the new variant is subject to existing exit protocols of the Philippines, as well as entry rules of the destination.

Specimens of travelers from said countries will also be submitted for further examination of medical experts.

Earlier, Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said the country’s coronavirus task force recommended banning travelers from countries and territories that reported cases of the new variant. President Rodrigo Duterte already approved this proposal "in principle," according to Health Secretary Francisco Duque III.

“Ang travel ban lang po ngayon ay doon sa UK. Will there be [one] in the future for countries na mayroong variant? It has been highly recommended. A decision is forthcoming,” Roque, who is also the spokesman of said in a briefing.

[Translation: Currently, the Philippines is only imposing a travel ban on UK. Will there be [one] in the future for countries with the variant? It has been highly recommended. A decision is forthcoming].

Roque was reacting to Duque’s statement that a travel ban will be imposed on countries or territories where the new variant has been detected from Dec. 30 until Jan. 15. Duque added that returning overseas Filipino workers are exempted from the ban, but they will have to undergo mandatory quarantine for two weeks.

“Except for OFWs. ’Yun ang gusto ng pangulo na ang mga OFWs, ang mga kababayan natin hayaan silang makapasok but they will have to undergo strict 14-day quarantine,” the health chief said in an ambush interview on Tuesday morning.

[Translation: Except for OFWs. That is what the President wants — to let our OFWs, our fellow countrymen, to enter the country, but they will have to undergo a strict 14-day quarantine.]

Duque earlier said a ban on inbound visitors should only be imposed once the new variant has caused a widespread transmission of COVID-19 in a country. This did not sit well with Duque's critics, noting that his reluctance to recommend implementing travel restrictions on travelers from China in January led to a spike in cases of the deadly disease. The country's first known patient who showed COVID-19 symptoms was a tourist from China's Wuhan City.

Roque then made an appeal to his colleagues to avoid making COVID-19-related announcements to avoid sowing confusion among the public.

“My office is only the one authorized to issue any information relating to COVID,” Roque stressed.

“Nakikiusap po ako [I am making an appeal], and I am reiterating there is an executive order in this regard. Let’s honor it. Let’s be one team.”

The new variant called VUI 202012/01 was first detected in the United Kingdom earlier this month, prompting the Philippines to suspend flights from the UK until the second week of January. It is said to be more transmissible than other known variants.

Other countries that have confirmed cases of the new COVID-19 variant include Denmark, the Netherlands, Australia, Japan, and France. The Department of Health said Tuesday in a briefing that at least 18 countries will be part of the travel ban once the President approves the recommendation on the travel ban, but the list may be updated depending on future developments.

On Dec. 19, the UK imposed a lockdown in London, southeastern England, and also tightened restrictions for all of England over the festive period, according to CNN. 

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 with the variant, CNN International has reported.

CNN Philippines' Anjo Alimario contributed to this report