DOTr: Possible to recall new public transport distancing policy

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, September 14) — Authorities may recall the new public transport distancing policy if it would result in coronavirus transmission, a transportation official said Monday.

Transportation Undersecretary Artemio Tuazon told CNN Philippines that authorities will monitor and study the effects of reduced physical distancing, and will make changes as needed.

"So from the 0.75 meter starting today (Monday), in the span of two weeks, we will be studying it. If there are any problems that we encounter during the two-week period, we will revert to one meter," Tuazon said in an interview with The Source.

If there are no reported hurdles, he said the policy stays, even progressively.

"Now, if there are no problems, then we reduce to 0.5. Then for another two weeks, we study it, again, if there are no problems, then maybe we can reduce it to 0.3. It will be something that will be closely monitored, studied, and enforced," Tuazon said.

In a separate interview, Metropolitan Manila Development Authority Spokesperson Celine Pialago said Metro Manila mayors are set to hold a meeting tonight or tomorrow to discuss the implementation of the reduced physical distancing.

"Mag-uusap po sila diyan, at i-pepresenta po ito sa ating Pangulong Duterte. [….] Ito pong pagbawas at pagbaba ho sa 0.75, ito po ang gustong maliwanagan ng ating Metro Manila mayors para ma-adjust din ho [nila] 'yung existing ordinances nila," Pialago bared.

[Translation: They will talk about it, and they will present it to President Duterte. (….) They want to clarify things with regard the reduced distance of 0.75, so they can adjust their existing ordinances.]

However, in another interview with CNN Philippines on Monday, Interior Secretary Eduardo Año said he will propose a second look at the new rule.

"I am proposing a review of that policy and resolution, because tomorrow, the health sectors will be presenting their argument; and we would like to take a look at their presentation. In my case, we would like to adhere to the minimum health standards; and according to science, one meter kasi 'yung minimum health standard na distance," he said.

Anything less than that, Año said, is a cause for concern. He added he was not present at the meeting when the matter was discussed and eventually approved.

In a meeting with President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday night, Health Secretary Duque revealed he was also not present at the IATF meeting which discussed the easing of physical distancing measures in public transport.

However, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said DOH representatives were there and did not offer any objection.

The new distance of 75 centimeters took effect on Monday, with the government seeking to accommodate more riders. It will be reduced again to 50 centimeters by September 28, and further down to 30 centimeters by October 12.

The move, however, raised questions from a number of sectors, including health experts and netizens.

The Philippine College of Physicians warned of a possible rise in COVID-19 cases, saying this may increase chances of transmitting and acquiring the virus.

But Tuazon, citing international studies, said other health protocols can help prevent the transmission of COVID-19.

Public clamor?

Tuazon, meanwhile, cited public clamor as one of the reasons behind the new rule.

He said the request to ease the distancing rules in public transport came from people who want more options to go to work.

"Nagmula 'yang request na 'yan sa ating mga mamamayan. Dahil nga po nagbubukas na po 'yung ating ekonomiya, kailangan pong makapasok sa trabaho ang mga tao natin, ang mga mamamayan natin," Tuazon said in the Laging Handa media briefing later in the day, when asked where the request for such move originated.

[Translation: That request came from our citizens. Because we're opening up our economy, our citizens all need to go to work.]

Commuter advocacy group AltMobility PH, however, expressed opposition to the eased rules, citing the medical experts' recommendation to stick with the prescribed distance.

The group's chief mobility officer Jedd Ugay told CNN Philippines' News.PH that while they recognize the government's intention to accommodate more commuters, the better move would be to augment the number of operational public transport vehicles.

Ugay highlighted that only around one-third of public vehicles are currently allowed on the road. He specifically called for the return of more jeepneys and tricycles, which he noted provide better ventilation, and thus pose less risk of viral transmission compared to buses and other vehicles with air-conditioning units.

Coronavirus infections in the country have surpassed the 265,000 mark, with the Health department reporting 4,699 new cases on Monday.