MANILA (REUTERS, NYTIMES, AFP) - The Philippines has confirmed domestic transmission of the new, highly contagious British variant of the coronavirus, prompting President Rodrigo Duterte to abandon a plan to allow some minors to go outside their homes.
"Right now, we have local transmission where this individual or these cases with the variant have already infected their community, their family," Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire told news channel ANC on Tuesday (Jan 26).
The world is scrambling to contain the spread of the B.1.1.7 variant, despite travel bans, new lockdowns and tightened quarantine measures in dozens of countries, amid concerns it could not only be more transmissible, but deadlier.
The Philippine health ministry said the B.1.1.7 variant had spread among 12 people in Bontoc, a mountainous northern province, with 17 such cases in the country.
Its first case of the British variant was found in a Filipino who had travelled from the United Arab Emirates.
Citing the British variant, President Duterte said he had scrapped a plan to allow children aged 10 to 14 in low-risk areas to go outside the home starting Feb 1.
The Philippines, which has imposed some of the world's toughest coronavirus restrictions, including internal travel bans, has since March last year officially prohibited minors from leaving the home.
"I am afraid because this new strain strikes the young children," Mr Duterte said late on Monday.
"Go back to your homes... and besides they're good just with the TV. They can glue their attention to the TV the whole day," he added.
In Britain, Covid-19 infections had spiked in children of all ages, fuelling fears that the new variant would be just as dangerous in children as in adults.
But while the new variant is more contagious than previous iterations of the virus, children are still only about half as likely as adults to spread it to others, experts had said.
The Philippine government had hoped that easing restrictions on children might boost economic activity, after a year when growth is expected to have contracted 8.5-9.5 per cent.
Just hours before Mr Duterte spoke, Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez said Monday that allowing children outside again would help spur consumer demand and revive businesses battered by anti-virus measures.
Acting Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Karl Kendrick Chua said this month that 50 per cent of the economy was driven by "family activities", and without them the economy could not recover.
The Philippines' caseload of more than half a million infections is one of the highest in South-east Asia.
Mr Duterte's administration has been criticised for its slowness to procure Covid-19 vaccines, with the bulk not expected to start arriving until the second half of the year.
The government expects data to be released Thursday to show gross domestic product contracted by as much as 9.5 per cent last year.