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Reduced physical distancing in public transport based on science, says DOTr exec

The implementation of reduced physical distancing in public transport amid the COVID-19 pandemic is based on studies of experts in railways and medical fields, according to a Department of Transportation (DOTr) official on Monday.

Reduced physical distancing between passengers in public transportation — from a meter to 0.75 meter — takes effect on Monday amid criticisms including from Vice President Leni Robredo, who questioned its basis.

“Pinagbasehan po namin dito 'yung pag-aaral ng ibang eksperto, katulad po sa train 'yung International Union of Railways, na nakikita na hindi naman ganun kailangan talagang kalaki ang distansya,” said DOTr Undersecretary Artemio Tuazon in an interview on Unang Balita.

Citing medical experts, Tuazon pointed out that the transmission rate can still be reduced to 94-95% with the observance of health protocols such as wearing of face mask and face shield, as well as regular disinfection.

“Actually po kung titignan niyo 'yung mga datos ngayon, ang Pilipinas na lang ang nagpapatupad ng one-meter distancing sa mga railways natin,” he said.

In a separate interview, Tuazon said the study of the International Union of Railways looked into the risk of catching COVID-19 on public transportation.

“Nakita po nila na hindi po sa public transportation, hindi po sa railway system nagmumula ang transmission o hindi po ito ang vector for transmission ng COVID-19,” he said at the Laging Handa briefing.

“Makikita po rin sa datos na from the time nag-relax po ‘yung mga bansa na ‘yan, at tinanggal na po nila ‘yung social distancing o binawasan nila ‘yung social distancing sa kanilang rail sector at tsaka sa iba pang transport sectors, makikita po na actually bumaba po ang mga COVID cases nitong mga bayan na’to.”

Tuazon also said the easing of physical distancing rules was to address commuters’ woes.

“Nagmula po ang request na iyan sa ating mga mamamayan,” he said.

“Matagal na pong hinihingi na tulungan natin ang pagbubukas ng ekonomiya sa pagbubukas din ng ating public transport para naman po makapunta sa kanilang mga trabaho ang ating mga mamamayan,” he added.

Based on the recommendation of the World Health Organization (WHO), a distance of at least one meter should be observed to prevent the transmission of the coronavirus.

However, Tuazon said the one-meter distance was based on a 1980s study.

According to the DOTr, the distance between passengers could be further reduced to 0.5 meter after two weeks and to 0.3 meter after another two weeks. The DOTR said this is to increase ridership in public transportation.

Interior Secretary Eduardo Año, a member of the government policy-making task force in addressing the pandemic, said he prefers the old one-meter distance between passengers, but added that reducing the distance is a "collective decision."

"Personally, I would like to abide by the one-meter standard of physical distancing. If we can actually provide more transport to our people rather than reducing the distance," Año told ANC.

Transport group Alliance of Concerned Transport Organizations (ACTO) also slammed the DOTr's move as it once again urged the government to allow all public transportation modes to resume operations first to accommodate all commuters before resorting to reducing physical distancing standards.

But according to Tuazon, the DOTr is already considering this suggestion. “Nandoon na rin po kami, nakikita po namin ‘yun. Naririnig po namin 'yun. Ginagawa na po namin 'yan,” he said.

Tuazon said the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board recently allowed additional 1,159 traditional public utility jeepneys to ply 28 routes in the National Capital Region.

ACTO president Efren de Luna noted that only 30% of the additional jeepneys allowed can operate because most drivers already went back to provinces due to the financial impact of the suspension of operations.

Aside from jeepneys, De Luna said all UV Express units should be allowed to return to operation, pointing out that 90% of them are still suspended amid the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tuazon said the resumption of public transportation is being done in phases.

Meanwhile, on the first day of implementation of reduced physical distancing protocol, some buses and jeepneys still observed the one-meter physical distancing between passengers as drivers and conductors did not know how to measure the 0.75 meter new physical distancing standard.   —with Virgil Lopez/KBK, GMA News