Gov't scraps distance-reduction rule in public transport

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, September 18) — It's final: The Philippine government is terminating the controversial policy that reduced the physical distance between commuters following President Rodrigo Duterte's decision, Malacañang said on Saturday.

“Ang desisyon po ng Presidente, mananatili ang one-meter distancing sa pampublikong transportasyon,” Presidential spokesman Harry Roque Jr. told state-run People's Television Network.

[Translation: The President’s decision is to retain the one-meter distancing in public transportation.]

Aside from keeping distance, commuters must wear a face mask, face shield, refrain from talking, and sanitize, Roque added.

The Department of Transportation said in a statement it will abide by Duterte’s decision. “The President has spoken. We shall aggressively comply and strictly enforce the 1-meter physical distancing in all public transport as envisioned and mandated.”

The Department of Health and Metro Manila mayors welcomed Duterte's decision to keep the one-meter distancing rule in PUVs.

“Kami po ay nagagalak na ito po’y inapubrahan ng mahal na Presidente na we have to sustain 'yung ating distancing,” Metro Manila Council chairman and Parañaque Mayor Edwin Olivarez said in a briefing.

[Translation: We are glad our dear President approved the recommendation to sustain the one-meter distancing.]

Health spokesperson Maria Rosario Vergeire, citing a local study, said in a briefing that wearing a face mask and face shield, as well as keeping at least three feet of space from others, reduces a person’s risk of getting COVID-19 by 99 percent.

The distance inside public utility vehicles will revert to one meter after the Department of Transportation on September 14 reduced the distance to 0.75 meter. The World Health Organization recommends maintaining a one-meter distance to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which is transmitted through respiratory droplets.

DOTr was supposed to implement gradual reduction of distancing — down to a 0.3-meter space between commuters in the final phase by mid-October — but this was met with criticisms from the health sector.

A number of medical experts opposed the easing of physical distancing in public transport, warning the number of COVID-19 cases will spike to at least 600 new cases daily in Metro Manila.

Dr. Maricar Limpin, vice president of the Philippine College of Physicians, advised keeping the physical distancing measures in place until the number of cases has significantly dropped. She did note, however, an improvement in the DOH's numbers which are now at over 3,000 new infections a day, compared to over 5,000 and 6,000 cases daily in past weeks.

"As long as medyo ganito pa kadami ang mga tao na may COVID-19 infection then we cannot let our guard down," she told CNN Philippines' Newsroom Weekend.

[Translation: As long as we have this many people who have the COVID-19 infection, then we cannot let our guard down.]

Former COVID-19 task force adviser Dr. Tony Leachon also said maintaining a safe distance is the best way to protect people from contracting COVID-19. He said this even trumps the wearing of face masks and face shield, which are requirements in PUVs.

"Of all interventions, physical distancing is the most effective, cornerstone in controlling infections," he said on Friday.

The policy has also elicited opposing opinions within the national government's COVID-19 task force. Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade stood pat on its enforcement, stating medical studies. But Health Chief Francisco Duque III, joined by National Task Force Against COVID-19 Vice Chair Eduardo Año, thumbed down the plan during their review.