MANILA (PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Excitement, trepidation, and confusion greeted the approval last week by the country's anti-Covid-19 task force of new and "uniform" domestic travel protocols that aim to make it easier for Filipinos to move around the country by land, sea, or air.
Under the "harmonised" protocols approved on Feb 26 by the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases, Filipinos desiring to travel, returning residents, and overseas Filipino workers no longer need to secure a travel authority from the Philippine National Police's Joint Task Force Covid Shield and a medical certificate from the local health office before travelling.
Neither are they required to undergo facility-based quarantine at the destination - lasting as long as 14 days - unless they show symptoms of Covid-19 upon arrival.
Covid-19 testing is also no longer mandatory except if the local government unit of destination will impose it. And if it does, it can only require the gold-standard reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) test to detect the presence of Covid-19.
The issuance of the "uniform" travel protocols was welcomed by the Department of Tourism, which said the simplification of requirements was "vital in encouraging domestic travel and helping in the speedy recovery of the Philippine tourism (sector)" that was hit particularly hard by the lockdowns imposed beginning March 15 last year.
The DOT estimates that the Philippines lost some P400 billion (S$10 billion) in potential revenue from international tourists alone as borders were closed to stem the spread of the disease, on top of painful mass layoffs across the sector as tourism activities nationwide ground to a halt.
However, the Octa Research Group does not share the DOT's positive sentiment.
It deems the relaxed protocols a "bit concerning," given resurgent Covid-19 cases particularly in the National Capital Region, and the confirmed presence of the even more contagious South Africa and United Kingdom variants of the disease in other parts of the country.
Increased mobility will mean increased potential to bring the disease across borders, thus potentially overwhelming local government units with a weaker health system. So far, six cases of the South Africa variant and 87 of the UK variant have been confirmed by the Department of Health.
"Hindi naman masama mag-travel, but let's just be strict about our border controls para hindi natin ikalat sa buong Pilipinas 'yung virus," said Dr Guido David of the Octa Research Group.
The numbers appear to justify the research group's grave concerns.
Octa's March 1 report said a new surge of Covid-19 cases has already started in NCR, with the seven-day average of new cases rising to 762, or 61 per cent and 94 per cent higher than the previous week's and two weeks prior, respectively.
The reproduction rate - the number of people that one person can infect - has risen to 1.5 compared to the national average of 1.2.
The number of new cases per day in NCR will skyrocket to 2,200 by the end of March from the current average of 770, warned Octa.
Further, "In this light, based on our analysis of the data and the past trends in the NCR, we believe that a surge in its early stages has already started in some LGUs in the region. Unlike past surges experienced, the current surge has spread very quickly in a short period. The increase in cases and the reproduction number indicates that the virus is already spreading exponentially in a number of LGUs in the region."
Should the trends hold, the country may see 665,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases and 14,000 deaths by the end of March - from 580,442 and 12,369, respectively, as of March 2-with the national vaccine rollout barely out of the gates and the targeted vaccination of 75-80 percent of the population to reach herd immunity not happening until 2023.
Despite this, the Department of the Interior and Local Government is bent on implementing the looser protocols to boost the economy, while readily admitting that there has been some confusion among the public as the new rules have yet to be fully explained to the public and LGUs.
Some LGUs are insisting on keeping the stricter protocols for fear of a Covid-19 surge.
The administration's overriding need to boost the country's clobbered economy pretty much puts the onus on the LGUs-particularly those in tourism destinations - to find the crucial balance between reviving economic activity in their localities and keeping the virus in check with the anticipated surge in arrivals.
Travellers must help in this tremendous burden by continuing to adhere to minimum public health standards such as physical distancing, hand hygiene, cough etiquette, and wearing of face masks and face shields.
Restrictions may have been eased, but it's not yet the time for devil-may-care holidays, with the contagion still unsuppressed, new variants coming in, and mass immunization a long way off.
The Philippine Daily Inquirer is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media organisations.