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At briefing, Cabinet execs debate reducing physical distancing on public transport

Cabinet secretaries on Monday night publicly debated the planned gradual reduction in physical distancing on public transport amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a nationally televised briefing with President Rodrigo Duterte, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III pointed out that based on a study by the Health Professionals Alliance Against COVID-19, decreasing social distancing restrictions will increase the country’s death rate.

“Kung babawasan ang isang metro to .75 meters at a 50% ridership dito sa NCR, ang death rate natin, new cases every day, will reach 686 per day. So if you multiply that by 30 days, you will have about 20,580 cases—‘yan po ang bagong kaso,” Duque said.

“If you multiply that by 1.6, which is our case fatality rate, ang lalabas po dito will be 3,951 deaths per year,” he added.

Medical professionals have objected to transport authorities' plan.

“‘Pag titingnan natin ang curve ng pandemic na ito, masyadong maaga pa at malamang na dumami lalo ang kaso at bumagal ang recovery natin kung gawin natin ito ngayon,” Dr. Antonio Miguel Dans of the HPAAC said.

Experts from the University of the Philippines (UP) advised the government to reconsider. Naniniwala po kami na dadami po ang transmission natin ng COVID-19 kung gagawin natin ito,” said Professor Ranjit Rye of the UP-OCTA Research Team, adding that they had not been consulted about the move. 

Meanwhile, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque argued that while several medical professionals raised concerns regarding the reduced physical distancing rule, the transport sector said wearing of face shields and face masks is enough to prevent virus transmission in public transport.

He added that the Department of Health did not object to the decision to decrease the distance during their meeting.

Duque, however, said he was not present at the time.

“Sabi ng DOTr kasi nong in-approve sa IATF ‘di naman umudyak ang mga tiga DOH… kaya sabi ng DOTr, in fairness lang ho, kasi it was really approved by the IATF at wala namang objection ang DOH at nandoon din ako sa meeting wala rin ako narinig na objection,” Roque said.

'Risk management'

Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr., on the other hand, said it is a matter of risk management.

“If we reduce the 1 meter to .75, mayroon po tayong gagawing tinatawag na risk mitigation. One of those is proper ventilation,” he said.

Galvez also said as long as passengers do not remove their masks and avoid talking, eating, and using their phones, the risk of transmission will be low.

He added that the Philippines may be the only country being “stringent” about social distancing.

“Pinaka-importante ‘yong 3Cs. Avoid crowding, close contact at tsaka confined spaces,” Galvez said. “’Yong ibang countries nakita ko sa Japan, dikit-dikit, pero ang rule nila is no talking and talagang no using of cellphones and no eating.”

Galvez also said infection is more common in households and workplaces, not necessarily transportation.

“Kung wala talaga mga vehicles natin, transportaion, we cannot recover [economically],” he added.

'Babalik tayo sa pinagmulan'

However, Interior Secretary Eduardo Año sided with the Health department and said the proposal to reduce distancing measures is dangerous.

“’Yong shield at mask, nagmi-mitigate lang pero importante talaga ‘yong distansya,” he said.

“Sumasang-ayon po ako sa health professionals na ito’y magsisimula ng pag-spike at parang roller coaster na babalik na naman po tayo sa pinagmulan natin. Magiging ECQ na naman,” Año added.

Meanwhile, Duterte asked the IATF to provide him with a visual report on the effect of the reduction in physical distancing so he can understand it more.

“Mas gusto ko visual, maiintindihan ko ka agad. Para I can translate it into words ‘tong recommendation ninyo plus ‘yong narrative,” the president said.

Earlier, Malacañang said that the IATF will meet on Tuesday to discuss concerns arising from the easing of physical distancing rules in public transport. — BM, GMA News