MANILA - The Philippines is starting 2022 with tightened restrictions, after a new wave of Covid-19 infections likely fuelled by the extremely infectious Omicron variant.
The government has put Metro Manila - an urban sprawl of 16 cities with more than 13 million people - on the third-highest level of alert from Jan 3 to 15.
Restaurants, churches, restaurant dine-in services, amusement parks, tourist attractions, beauty salons, fitness studios would open at lower capacities, President Rodrigo Duterte's spokesman Karlo Nograles told a news conference late on Friday (Dec 31).
In-person classes, contact sports, funfairs and casinos were suspended, while localised lockdowns targeting specific buildings, streets and neighbourhoods would also be enforced.
This comes as the number of daily infections surged from less than 500 on Tuesday to nearly 3,000 on Friday.
Independent data analysts from the Octa Research group said Covid-19 cases could reach 4,000 on Saturday and then "grow exponentially".
The actual number fell just short, with the Health Ministry tallying 3,617 cases.
The positivity rate - which is the number of those testing positive - is already at 20 per cent from less than 5 per cent last week.
The reproduction rate - which indicates how quickly the coronavirus is spreading or receding - soared this week to 3.19 from 0.51 last week. A rate of 1 means an outbreak is under control.
Daily infections surged to a two-month high on Friday after the government eased quarantine curbs, as an outbreak set off by the Delta variant receded.
Shopping malls, restaurants, grocers, gaming arcades and cinemas saw large crowds, as Filipinos stepped up holiday celebrations after over two years of sweeping restrictions.
The Health Ministry has yet to acknowledge an Omicron-fuelled community transmission, but it reported on Friday the country's first three cases of the variant with no clear link to any traveller.
"The epidemiological investigation on the three local cases indicates there is a high possibility of local transmission," it said.
Health Minister Francisco Duque told reporters it was "prudent to assume that Omicron is already in circulation, or is already in the community".
The Philippine General Hospital, the country's largest state-run hospital, has seen a threefold increase in Covid-19 patients from Dec 25 to Jan 31, its spokesman Jonas del Rosario said on Saturday.
With roughly 2.84 million total confirmed cases and more than 51,500 casualties so far, the Philippines has the second-highest number of Covid-19 cases and deaths in South-east Asia, after Indonesia.
Eleven of the Omicron cases involved overseas travellers.
The government's coronavirus task force has been investigating hotels said to be allowing those who are supposed to be on mandatory quarantine to leave for a fee, in a scheme dubbed "absentee quarantine".
In an incident that has gone viral, a young tourist from the United States was reported to have snuck out of a quarantine facility on Dec 23 to meet her friends at a popular commercial district in Metro Manila. She tested positive four days later.