Duterte not keen on banning travel to China amid coronavirus scare

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The President says banning travel to China will be difficult since they "continue to respect the freedom flights that we enjoy."

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, January 29) — President Rodrigo Duterte maintained on Wednesday that banning travel between the country and China will not be easy, despite the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) outbreak that originated in the East Asian nation.

"Mahirap 'yang ano, sabihin mong [It is hard to say that] you suspend everything because they are not also suspending theirs and they continue to respect the freedom flights that we enjoy," Duterte told reporters in an ambush interview.

However, he said the government is ready to repatriate Filipinos in Wuhan — the Chinese city which sits at the center of the outbreak — should they seek to come home to the Philippines.

"We are always conscious of our citizens [and] their health and if they are going home, we are ready to ferry them back to the Philippines but all precautions must be in place," he added.

The Foreign Affairs Department earlier said two charter planes are on standby to fetch Filipinos in Wuhan once they get the go signal from Chinese officials.

Duterte added that he will leave the precautionary measures to the proper authorities.

Health Secretary Francisco Duque was also reluctant to recommend banning Chinese nationals from entering the country.

Duque said they are looking at the ban as an option but he raised that China might question why the Philippines is not imposing the same restriction on other countries.

"If we do this, then the concerned country — China in this case ​—​​​​​​ might question why we're not doing the same for other countries that have reported confirmed cases of novel coronavirus," said Duque during a question hour at the House of Representatives.

The secretary maintained that the Department of Health has intensified surveillance on travelers who may have symptoms of the virus. He said they are now strictly monitoring not just visitors from Wuhan but from the entire Hubei province, where the city is located.

"As I have said, we have scaled up, we have leveled up border surveillance. Our quarantine officers are well equipped," he added.

Chinese Consul General Jia Li also argued that a ban would be unnecessary, given that China has already imposed a travel lockdown.

"As of now, we cannot understand why there is a need to impose a ban on Chinese nationals. I wish that the mayors carefully study the proposals and talk with the DOH before they decide if it is really needed," the diplomat said in Chinese through an interpreter during a press conference in Cebu.

On the other hand, Senator Christopher "Bong" Go said he supports a travel ban to prevent the virus from spreading in the country.

He initially said he would recommend this measure to the President.

"Kung saka-sakaling kakailanganin ay irerekomenda natin kay Pangulong Duterte ‘yan.... Nakatutok tayo dito, ang ating mga health officials, foreign officials. Antayin lang natin ang kanilang rekomendasyon. Kung sakali, pabor ako diyan," he said in a statement.

[Translation: If it is needed then we will recommend that to President Duterte...Our health officials and foreign officials are monitoring this. Let us wait for the recommendation. If ever, I am in favor of it.]

The most recent data tallied over 6,000 cases of the novel coronavirus in 18 countries, namely, mainland China, Hong Kong, MaDutretcao, Australia, Cambodia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Malaysia, Nepal, Singapore, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Taiwan, the United States and Vietnam. However, 5,972 of these cases, including the total 132 deaths, have been in mainland China.

Duque said there are still no confirmed cases yet in the Philippines but they are waiting for test results from a reference laboratory in Australia on samples from suspected patients.

He said there are 23 people under investigation for the 2019-nCov with four others having been released earlier. The four are still being monitored, the secretary added.

The Philippines has already suspended all flights from Wuhan City and the issuance of visas upon arrival for Chinese nationals.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong closed some of its border crossings with mainland China to contain the virus.

Taiwan also temporarily suspended visa applications for all Chinese nationals and banned entry for those from Hubei province.

Some high-profile companies such as Facebook and Ford also instructed their employees to refrain from traveling to China.

On the other hand, British Airways suspended all flights between the United Kingdom and the East Asian country.

The Philippines welcomes a number of Chinese tourists every year. In 2019, the Tourism Department reported over one million arrivals from China from January to October, the second most number of visits, following Korea.

CNN Philippines' Senior Correspondent Ina Andolong, Correspondent Xianne Arcangel and Cebu-based journalist Dale Israel contributed to this report.