The leading association of Philippine health care professionals objected Monday as authorities relaxed physical distancing rules on public transportation in a bid to spur economic activity in the country that has the highest coronavirus caseload in East Asia.
The Department of Transportation reduced the required distance between public transit passengers from 1 meter (3.3 feet) to 75 cm (2.5 feet) on Monday, with further reductions scheduled on Sept. 28 and Oct. 12. Travelers are required to wear masks and face shields and are prohibited from making or taking phone calls.
The Healthcare Professionals Alliance against COVID-19 (HPAAC), the largest organization of health workers nationwide, appealed to the government to reconsider its stand.
“HPAAC is not in favor of relaxing social distancing measures in public utility vehicles because we think it’s still too early,” said Dr. Antonio Dans, an internist and spokesman for the group. “We think it’s too early because we think the cases will likely increase and or recovery will slow down if we implement this now.”
The announcement also goes against a recommendation by the World Health Organization (WHO) regarding physical distancing.
In a statement, the Philippine health department said that while it was focused on protecting lives, it was also cognizant of the need to spur the economy.
Still, it called on Filipinos to remain “extra vigilant in situations where distancing cannot be practiced,” and said they should try to “participate in activities or use transport options that can afford at least one meter distancing.”
Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade, meanwhile, defended the move.
“There is a need to safely optimize the carrying capacity of the various public transport modes as metro Manila and its adjacent areas continue with the transition toward the ‘new normal’ where more workers are expected to return to their re-opened workplaces and more businesses are expected to resume operations that were stopped during the enforcement of strict quarantine measures,” Tugade said in a statement.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said that after the immediate backlash, government officials would review the measure. The concerns of medical front-liners cannot be disregarded, he said.
“In fairness, that was approved by the IATF and no one objected,” Roque said, referring to the Inter-Agency Task Force on COVID-19.
Much of the Philippines remains under lockdown, but President Rodrigo Duterte and his cabinet have relaxed quarantine protocols. Shops, restaurants and other business have been allowed to reopen in part because of appeals from business groups trying to survive a sharp economic downturn.
The controversy erupted as the health department reported 259 new COVID-19 deaths, increasing the death toll to 4,630, along with 4,699 new infections, bringing the total to 265,888. Globally, more than 29 million have been infected and nearly 925,000 have died, according to disease experts at U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University.