Philippines to open borders to fully vaccinated travellers next month

The Philippines was hit with its biggest surge in Covid-19 infections early this month. PHOTO: REUTERS

MANILA - The Philippines is reopening its borders next month, allowing fully vaccinated travellers from at least 150 countries, including Singapore, to arrive without having to quarantine at a hotel or a government facility.

This comes as the wave of infections fuelled by the highly contagious Omicron variant of Covid-19 recedes in the country, officials said.

"It doesn't make sense any more (to require quarantine for inbound travellers)," Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire told reporters on Friday (Jan 28).

She said that Omicron was already so widespread that the infection rate in the Philippines "may even be higher than in countries from where we are restricting travel".

Dr Vergeire added that studies by epidemiologists showed that most infections were caused by community transmissions rather than from returning overseas Filipinos and other inbound travellers.

"Border controls were meant to prevent the entry of Omicron. But the variant is already here, and we're already past border controls. What we should be doing now is strengthen community interventions," she said.

The Philippines was hit with its biggest surge of Covid-19 infections early this month, with up to 40,000 new cases just over 10 days ago.

But the daily caseload has since plummeted. On Friday, the Health Ministry reported 18,000 cases.

Metro Manila - an urban sprawl of 16 cities and home to more than 13 million - and most other densely populated areas are now at moderate risk of infection, with cases falling, said Dr Vergeire.

Researchers estimate that new cases in Metro Manila could drop to below 500 by mid-February from 2,000 currently. Most infections have been mild or moderate, allowing hospitals to cope.

So, the country is now scrapping its colour-coded system that classified nations according to the risks they posed and pivoting to a vaccination-based scheme.

Mr Karlo Nograles, President Rodrigo Duterte's spokesman, told a news briefing on Friday that, starting from Feb 10, fully vaccinated travellers who test negative for Covid-19 two days before their flight can head straight to their hotels or homes in the Philippines. Currently, they have to go into quarantine for five to seven days upon arrival.

The easing of restrictions will initially cover about 150 countries and territories with no-visa arrangements with the Philippines, including all of South-east Asia, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, the United States, Britain and much of Europe.

By Feb 16, all fully vaccinated travellers, regardless of their origin, can come to the Philippines.

But those partially vaccinated and unvaccinated are still banned from entering the country.

Mr Nograles said the new measures are part of the government's "pandemic exit plan".

"We're hoping the tourism industry will experience a rebound and have a great impact on jobs, livelihood and economic growth," he said.

The new border measures are likely to entice tourists from big markets such as the US and some countries in South-east Asia like Cambodia, which also does not require tourists to quarantine first upon arrival, to return to the Philippines as they will no longer be hobbled by restrictive rules.

Although the latest measure could also be seen as an incentive for Filipinos to travel abroad too, curbs remain in places such as Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong and Thailand.

Filipinos who are already permanent residents in Singapore or have work visas, for instance, will still have to serve 10 days' stay-home notice after they arrive from the Philippines.

That may dampen enthusiasm for those planning to return home.

Most Filipinos in Singapore have not been to the Philippines in two years, deterred by health rules that will have them spending more than two weeks in quarantine in total in both countries.

Ms Gerai Vito, 33, a Filipino nurse in Singapore who has not been able to see her family in the Philippines since the pandemic began, said she would have jumped at the chance to go back home.

She will have to wait some more as she is moving to Britain next month.

"Maybe next year," she said.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.