MANILA - The Philippines' sprawling capital region on Friday (Aug 6) went back to a hard, sweeping lockdown to head off a deadly outbreak of the extremely infectious Delta variant of the coronavirus.
For two weeks, more than 13 million people living in Metro Manila will be under the strictest shelter-at-home restrictions since the government started rolling lockdowns in March last year.
This comes as the Health Ministry disclosed that the Delta variant, first detected in India, has spread to all of Metro Manila's 16 cities.
A government task force is enforcing movement curbs meant to keep nearly everyone in Metro Manila inside their homes.
Only health workers, as well as emergency and essential workers, can leave their homes. Those needing emergency care or heading to a vaccination site or an airport may also go out.
Quarantine passes are being issued to households so that just one person per household can go out to buy groceries, as well as home and medical supplies.
City-to-city travel is banned for those who are not heading to their offices or work sites.
Police checkpoints have been set up around Metro Manila to enforce the movement curbs.
"We are treating each city as a 'tiny bubble' inside a larger bubble," the country's police chief, General Guillermo Eleazar, told reporters.
Only pharmacies, stores selling groceries and home supplies, and those offering gadget repair services will remain open inside malls. Public recreation spaces have been shut. No one can dine out; only takeaway and delivery are permitted.
There will still be public transport, but buses, trains and jeepneys can fill up to only half their seats.
A curfew will take effect from 8pm to 4am.
Massive traffic jams were seen along highways and roads near where checkpoints were set up a day ahead of the lockdown.
Many of those on the road were said to be heading to cities and towns outside Metro Manila where quarantine restrictions were looser.
Hordes of people descended on vaccination sites after false information spread that only those inoculated would get government aid, and that the vaccine drive would be halted during the lockdown.
At least two sites were forced to shut down because of the unexpectedly large crowds. Many had queued up as early as 1am only to be turned away.
Infections in Metro Manila have gone up by about 65 per cent in recent weeks, rising to an average of 1,535 a day from 928 previously.
The Delta strain has been found not only in all 16 cities in Metro Manila, but also several other densely populated cities and towns outside the capital.
The Philippines has so far managed to keep daily Covid-19 cases well below the levels it saw during a variants-fuelled surge in March and April. Back then, Metro Manila had more than 5,500 cases a day, overwhelming its hospitals. Nationwide, the daily tally was hitting up to 15,000.
The country's daily total caseload had been around 6,000 to 8,000 in previous weeks. But on Friday, the Health Ministry reported more than 10,600 infections, the highest since April 17. The spike was because of the Delta variant, it said.
With around 1.6 million Covid-19 cases and more than 28,000 deaths so far, the Philippines has the second-worst outbreak in South-east Asia, after Indonesia.
The daily caseload has so far trended below forecasts made by researchers from independent group Octa Research. They had warned that cases could soar to 2,000 a day in Metro Manila and up to 30,000 nationwide.
Still, at least 12 big hospitals in Metro Manila have said they are quickly running out of hospital beds.
Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire had said that the government was assuming that there was already a community transmission, though she cautioned against calling the trend a "surge".
"Sans any evidence right now, we are going to do actions towards this direction that there is already community transmission," she said on Monday.
Dr Vergeire told reporters on Friday that hundreds of field hospitals have already been set up, and oxygen production has been ramped up in anticipation of a Delta-fuelled outbreak.
Here are some of the rules under the Philippines' current lockdown:
• A curfew will take effect from 8pm to 4am; repeat violators will be fined.
• City-to-city travel is prohibited, except for frontline and essential workers heading to their offices and work sites.
• Places providing essential services, including clinics, testing labs, banks and telcos, as well as food, logistics and outsourcing firms, will remain open but with reduced staff.
• Mayors may close down a street, gated community or an entire district with a runaway outbreak and prevent anyone there from leaving.
• Only one person per household will be given a “quarantine pass” to buy groceries, medicines and other essential items; the pass is non-transferable.
• Those needing emergency care or heading to a vaccination site or an airport may also go out.
• Only groceries, pharmacies, and home supplies and gadget repair stores will remain open inside malls.
• No dining out is allowed; only takeaways and deliveries.