PH govt told to urgently ban travelers from Hong Kong amid Omicron threat

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, November 29) — The government must decide with a sense of urgency when it comes to travel restrictions on Hong Kong to prevent the entry of the Omicron variant, especially with the holiday season fast approaching, a health reform advocate said.

Dr. Tony Leachon, a former adviser of the National Task Force against COVID-19, said Hong Kong must be immediately included in the temporary travel ban considering how close it is to the Philippines and the many Filipino domestic workers who are expected to return home during the Christmas season.

As of Sunday, the Philippines banned inbound flights from 14 nations, but Hong Kong is still part of the Philippines' yellow list.

Fully vaccinated travelers from Hong Kong and other yellow-listed countries must present a negative RT-PCR test result done within 72 hours prior to departure.

They will have to undergo facility-based quarantine until the release of a negative test result done on the third day and then complete monitoring at home.

"It would be prudent on our part to suspend inbound travelers, particularly from Hong Kong, because of the close proximity of that country to our shores," Leachon explained on Sunday.

"And considering also the number of overseas contract workers who are homebound for the holiday season,” he added.

As of 2019, an estimated 240,000 overseas Filipino workers are in Hong Kong, which is about two hours from Manila by plane.

Hong Kong joins South Africa, Botswana, Belgum, Israel, Germany and more countries with confirmed cases of the new variant.

Israel, a model nation in COVID-19 pandemic response, earlier announced plans to prevent foreigners from entering the country for two weeks. There are now seven suspected cases of the Omicron variant in Israel.

But Leachon said there is no need to include countries like Israel in the travel ban for now. Instead, he suggested an extended quarantine period for travelers returning from nations with confirmed cases of Omicron.

“We need to consider a stricter quarantine," he said. "For example, you have to prolong it from three days to about seven days. And then check their RT-PCR test first and then isolate them. And once it’s negative then we can release them."

He continued: "For the other countries, I think we can actually revisit the green list countries and then the quarantine guidelines,”

Leachon said there is nothing wrong with imposing strict border controls, citing the example of Israel. He said these protocols will help delay the inevitable entry of the Omicron variant in the country.

Infectious diseases specialist Dr. Rontgene Solante also believes it is better to be cautious, especially with so many uncertainties about the new variant.

“I fully agree na all those countries with Omicron variant should also be part of the travel ban for the meantime that we don’t know yet the extent of the spread of this Omicron variants of concern,” he said.

Solante echoed Leachon’s suggestion for the government to revisit the health protocols, just like what other countries are doing amid the Omicron variant threat.