Philippines extends travel ban to prevent spread of more contagious coronavirus variant

The ban includes travellers from Singapore, the United States, Britain, Japan, Australia, France, Germany, South Korea and China, including Hong Kong. PHOTO: REUTERS

MANILA - The Philippines extended on Friday (Jan 15) the ban on all travellers from over 30 countries and territories where a more contagious coronavirus variant has been detected.

The ban will now remain in force until Jan 31.

It includes travellers from Singapore, the United States, Britain, Japan, Australia, France, Germany, South Korea and China, including Hong Kong.

No decision has yet been made to ban travellers from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where a Filipino - who has since returned to the Philippines - contracted the new variant while in Dubai.

"(President Rodrigo Duterte) will be the one to declare that (i.e. a ban on travellers from UAE), if it happens," Mr Harry Roque, the president's spokesman, told online news site Rappler.

The Philippines has moved to tighten its borders in an effort to contain the spread of this new variant of the virus.

The variant - officially known as VUI-202012/01, or lineage B117 - is believed to be 70 per cent more transmissible than previously circulating coronavirus variants.

First detected in Britain in late September, it has spread to at least 45 countries. But it is not thought to be more deadly or cause more severe illness.

With more than 494,000 infections and 9,739 deaths, the Philippines has the second-highest number of Covid-19 cases and casualties in South-east Asia, after Indonesia.

Mr Roque said in a statement on Friday that the Health Ministry would send samples from those who tested positive for genome sequencing, to determine which variants of the coronavirus they were carrying.

On Wednesday (Jan 13), the Health Ministry announced that it had found the British variant in a 29-year-old real estate agent living in Quezon City in the capital region who went to Dubai for business from Dec 27 to Jan 7.

He tested positive a day after arriving back to the Philippines from Dubai. He had travelled there with his girlfriend, who tested negative but was being tested again.

Health experts in the Philippines warned that the new variant could raise the country's total coronavirus caseload 15times.

Dr John Wong of health research institution Epimetrics said: "With our current reproduction rate of 1.1, 20,000 cases at the beginning of the month will be about 32,000 at the end of the month. But if the variant takes over, the 20,000 cases can become almost 300,000 cases by the end of the month."

The Health Ministry has, for now, ruled out another sweeping lockdown to prevent this from happening.

It has instead advised local governments to step up their efforts to enforce current measures such as wearing masks and face shields while out in public.

So far this month, the country's caseload has been rising faster than it did last month. The Octa Research Group, based at the state-run University of the Philippines, had noticed a "clear upward trend" in infections, with the coronavirus reproductive rate in Metro Manila rising above the generally accepted safe level of 1.

Health officials earlier said daily cases would probably stay above 1,000, with an expected post-holiday surge yet to be recorded.

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