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Cutting distance still under review

MJ Blancaflor

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The Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) would review the gradual reduction of distancing requirement in public utility vehicles (PUV) after medical experts warned that the policy might increase coronavirus transmission, the Palace said Monday.

In his televised briefing, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said the IATF would reconvene today, 15 September, to discuss the concerns raised by health professionals and commuter groups on reducing the required distancing measure in public transportation from 1 meter to 0.75 meter.

“Reducing the space or distance between passengers was approved by the IATF because we cannot reopen the economy without transportation but we will not be deaf on the opinion of medical frontliners,” Roque said.

The Palace official added that the policy in PUV was approved by the IATF last Thursday since no objections were raised by task force members during their meeting. Roque, however, noted that it was not presented to President Rodrigo Duterte.

“Our medical frontliners raised their observations and we cannot set aside that, so we will listen to them,” Roque said.

The Department of Transportation (DoTr) earlier said the current 0.75 physical distancing in public transportation would be further reduced to 0.5 by 28 September and 0.3 by 12 October.

The plan drew flak from medical experts, including former pandemic response task force adviser Tony Leachon, Philippine General Hospital infectious diseases doctor Edsel Salvaña and San Lazaro Hospital department head Rontgene Solante.

Doctors Antonio Dans of the Healthcare Professionals Alliance against COVID-19 and Lei Camiling-Alfonso of the Philippine Society for Public Health Professionals also expressed concerns over the risks that the new policy might pose, as they pointed out that the one-meter physical distance between individuals is the bedrock of preventing virus transmission.

They also noted that health organizations around the world, including the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United States Center for Disease Control and Protection (CDC), have all recommended at least one-meter distancing measure.

The experts also argued that this “risky and confusing” protocol might lead to complacency due to wrong impressions that the COVID-19 situation in the country is improving.

Backed by science
Following criticisms, DoTr Undersecretary Artemio Tuazon Jr. defended the measure on Monday as he cited studies which supposedly backed the policy.

He said that a research made by the International Union of Railways showed that transmission rate can still be reduced to 94 to 95 percent sans one-meter physical distancing if wearing of mask and face shield is observed.

Tuazon added that the DoTr pushed through with the implementation of reduced distancing since the agency had received requests from commuters to ease restrictions so that PUV can accommodate more passengers.

“That request came from the public because our economy is opening up so workers need to go to work,” he said.

Advocacy group Clean Air Philippines Movement of the Philippines Inc. (CAPMI) also said that it is still safe to use public transport despite the reduced distancing protocol.

“If we need to lower physical distancing inside mass transport, then this needed re-adjustments must be simultaneously compensated by imposing the mandatory ‘no talking’ policy inside mass transportation,” said Leo Olarte, CAPMI president.

A recent study by the International Association of Public Transport showed that an improved ridership recovery has allowed major cities such as Moscow, Milan, Paris, London and even hard-hit New York, to recover from economic losses brought by lockdowns.

In Asia, the Philippines is the sole country which imposes strict passenger limits on trains as other countries have eased restrictions as early as March.

Mayors snubbed
Metro Manila Council chairman and Parañaque Mayor Edwin Olivarez also said the 17 local chief executives of National Capital Region were not consulted before the policy’s implementation.

The mayor said the local chief executives of the capital region have agreed that health protocols should be considered in reopening the economy.

However, Olivarez said the mayors would allow the implementation provided that wearing of mask and face shield are observed.

With reports from Alvin Murcia,
Elmer Manuel

and Maria Romero

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