Philippines lifts travel ban on Filipinos working in Hong Kong, Macau

Filipinos repatriated from China arriving at the Clark International Airport in Mabalacat, Philippines, on Feb 9, 2020. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

MANILA - The Philippines has allowed Filipinos with jobs in Hong Kong and Macau to return to these territories, easing travel restrictions it imposed following the coronavirus outbreak that first surfaced in China.

A top Foreign Ministry official said in a Twitter post on Tuesday (Feb 18) that those working in Hong Kong and Macau are now exempted from the travel ban, "subject to certain procedural formalities".

Filipinos still cannot travel to Hong Kong and Macau as tourists or students. Philippine carriers have already suspended direct flights to these destinations.

President Rodrigo Duterte's spokesman Salvador Panelo told reporters the workers would have to sign a "written declaration" that they are aware of the risks they are taking in going back to Hong Kong and Macau.

"This applies only to overseas Filipino workers," he said.

More than 210,000 Filipinos are working in Hong Kong as maids. Macau is home to about 32,000 Filipino workers.

Thousands of Filipinos bound for Hong Kong and Macau were left stranded in the Philippines after Mr Duterte on Feb 2 imposed a travel ban spanning China, Hong Kong and Macau.

It was in response to reports that a 44-year-old Chinese infected by the coronavirus died at a state-run hospital in Manila. He was from Wuhan, capital of Hubei province, the epicentre of the outbreak.

Two more Chinese tourists later tested positive while in the Philippines. Both had since recovered.

The Philippine Health Ministry said on Tuesday that over 500 patients had been checked for possible infections. Nearly 400 tested negative.

Filipinos working in Hong Kong who were left stranded in the Philippines had been pressing the government to ease its travel ban.

Many feared they would lose their jobs and businesses, while others expressed concern for their employers, and for relatives in Hong Kong in need of medical help.

Community groups had planned on submitting a statement to the Foreign Ministry calling the travel ban "unjustified and oppressive".

On Feb 16, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin backed the lifting of the travel ban.

"It's time to allow our domestic workers to return to their employers in Hong Kong. Eagerly awaited. HK has better facilities to contain virus," he said in a tweet.

The Philippines had also slapped a travel ban on Taiwan that it quickly lifted after Taipei threatened to respond with countermeasures.

Some 150,000 Filipinos work in Taiwan, enjoying visa-free entry that reports said could have been withdrawn in retaliation.

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