President Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. is set to issue an executive order making the wearing of face masks in indoor areas voluntary, Tourism Secretary Christina Frasco announced Tuesday.
At a press briefing in Malacañang, Frasco said this was reached during a Cabinet meeting earlier in the day.
"As a result of the Cabinet meeting this morning, it was agreed that the President would be issuing an executive order per the IATF recommendation to make indoor mask wearing also voluntary all over the Philippines with few exceptions," Frasco said, referring to the government's policy-making inter-agency task force.
Frasco said masks will still be required in public transportation, medical transportation and medical facilities.
She also said that persons unvaccinated against COVID-19, those with co-morbidities and senior citizens are still "highly encouraged" to wear masks.
Asked when this will be effective, Frasco said the public has to wait for the issuance of the EO.
According to Frasco, the direction of the Marcos administration is to lift the remainder of COVID-related travel restrictions, adding that easing the measures will allow the country to be at par with ASEAN neighbors that have since "liberalized their mask mandates."
Layers of protection
Still, the Department of Health (DOH) maintains that people will be more protected against COVID-19 if they use more layers of protection.
"[T]he DOH reminds the public that the more layers of protection we employ, the more protected we are against COVID-19. These include vaccination, masking, distancing, ventilation, and sanitation, as well as taking care of one's health," the agency said in a statement.
The DOH said they explained all possible scenarios concerning the masking mandates during meetings with the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF), but the collegial body "takes into consideration the concerns of all sectors."
The agency said it will await official guidance from Malacañang on the matter.
In addition, it urged people to weigh their personal risks before determining whether to take off their face masks, particularly during the holidays.
"[T]he decision to ease masking empowers each and every one of us by giving us the choice to decide based on our personal context and risk appetite," the DOH said.
"With this freedom to choose, it is therefore important for us to assess our individual risk thoroughly before deciding if it is safe and wise to remove our masks, especially now that the Undas and Christmas seasons are approaching and we expect increased COVID-19 transmission brought about by greater mobility," it added.
Meanwhile, Frasco said the government would also ease the requirement of COVID-19 tests, including on unvaccinated foreign nationals entering the country.
"In addition to this, it was also discussed that the remainder of stringent protocols such as the requirement of pre-departure testing into the Philippines in the form of RT-PCR would also be removed," Frasco said.
"As far as unvaccinated foreigners are concerned, they would henceforth be allowed entry into the Philippines with only the requirement of presenting an antigen test 24 hours taken before the departure or an option of taking an antigen test upon arrival into the Philippines," she added.
Frasco also mentioned the replacement of One Health pass with an electronic arrival, or E-Arrival, card. She said the E-Arrival card could be filled out prior to departure or upon arrival.
"It was also agreed that the One Health pass would be removed as already publicly announced and replaced with E-Arrival platform that introduces great convenience to our travelers and tourists in the sense that the interface is more user-friendly," she said.
It was also agreed during the meeting that special lanes will be provided in the airport for those who have not had the opportunity to fill out the E-Arrival card, according to Frasco.
"The overarching direction of the Marcos administration is to allow our country to convey an openness and readiness to the world to receive tourists and investments so that we would give our fellow Filipinos an opportunity to regain all the livelihood and losses that were incurred during the pandemic," Frasco said.
The announcement on the easing of protocols came days after the detection of the Omicron XBB subvariant. The DOH said localized community transmission of XBB had been observed in Western Visayas and the XBC in Davao and Soccsksargen.
According to Frasco, the newly-detected subvariant was "extensively discussed" during the IATF meeting last week.
"The DOH had presented its discussion on the new variant but the overall direction of the IATF and as discussed earlier during the Cabinet meeting is that the, first this is not the very first variant of the pandemic. We have had several variants in the past and that is the reason why the DOH is very aggressive in its vaccination campaign and booster campaign, which are all still ongoing," Frasco said.
"In the end, we simply cannot go on in a pandemic perspective because we have to give our country an opportunity to thrive while maintaining basic health protocols one one hand and safeguarding and protecting livelihood and the economy on the other," she added.
"And this is the reason why the new variant is being managed by the DOH, while the government is considering ways in which our economy can recover." — with Giselle Ombay/KBK/VBL, GMA News