Philippines considers coronavirus lockdown extension, plans rice imports

Workers carry sacks of rice inside a National Food Authority warehouse in Valenzuela, in the Metro Manila region of the Philippines, on March 26, 2020. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

MANILA (BLOOMBERG, REUTERS) - The Philippines has yet to decide if the month-long lockdown of its main Luzon island will be terminated, extended or expanded amid the coronavirus outbreak, Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles said.

"In this discussion, science is in charge," Nograles said in a televised speech. Rumours that the community quarantine will be extended by 60 days is "fake news," he said.

The Department of Health will set the parameters that would help the government decide on the lockdown that will last until April 14. It's still too early to tell whether the quarantine measures have helped flattened the curve, Nograles said.

The government is looking into converting passenger ships, hotels, a convention centre and a sports complex into quarantine facilities. Food and financial assistance for poor households will be released in the coming days.

The government is also seeking to import 300,000 tonnes of rice to ensure sufficient domestic supply of the staple as it tries to contain the spread of the coronavirus, Nograles said.

The Philippines' Inter-Agency Task Force on the Emerging Infectious Diseases has sought President Rodrigo Duterte's approval for a government-to-government rice purchase arrangement, he said .

The Department of Agriculture and other government agencies were now reaching out to Southeast Asian rice suppliers to negotiate for a deal, Nograles, who is also the task force's spokesman, said.

The Philippines became the world's biggest rice importer in 2019 with purchases estimated at a record 2.9 million tonnes. It usually buys from Vietnam along with some volumes from Thailand.

Vietnam, the world's third-largest rice exporter, has temporarily suspended new rice export contracts while undertaking a review of its stockpiles to ensure it has enough domestic supplies to cope with the coronavirus outbreak.

Rice traders, however, said on Monday that Vietnam was expected to lift the suspension this week, with the government imposing a quota.

The Philippines' fresh rice demand comes at a time when export prices are at multi-year peaks particularly in Thailand.

Global food security concerns are mounting as some governments contemplate restricting the flow of staple foods with around one-fifth of the world's population under lockdown to fight the widening coronavirus pandemic.

Cambodia will also ban some rice exports to ensure local food security during the coronavirus crisis.

Last week, Agriculture Secretary William Dar assured Filipinos that the country has enough rice for the next four months, taking into account current state stockpiles, the incoming local dry-season harvest, and continued importation.

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