DOTr defends reduced physical distancing in public transport, says it is backed by studies

The Department of Transportation on Monday claimed that the reduced physical distancing in public transport is backed by studies of experts in the railway sector and medical field here and abroad.

(Photo by Miggy Hilario / AFP / FILE PHOTO / MANILA BULLETIN)

In a ''Laging Handa'' virtual briefing, DOTr Undersecretary Artemio Tuazon Jr. cited studies from experts that even with a reduced distancing between passengers, transmission rate can still be lowered with strict enforcement of health protocols.

"Maraming mga studies na ginawa hindi lang dito sa atin pati na rin sa ibang bansa na kapag itong reduction ng social distancing ay sinamahan ng mandatory use of face mask, face shield, and no talking, no phone and no eating policy, kasama na yung regular disinfection of units, as well as temperature checking, magiging malaking tulong ito para mabawasan ang transmission ng virus sa public transport," Tuazon said.

(Many studies have been done not only here but also abroad that when the reduced social distancing is accompanied by the mandatory use of face mask, face shield, and no talking, no phone and no eating policy, including regular disinfection of units, as well as temperature checking, this will be a great help to lessen the transmission of the virus in public transport)

The DOTr official cited a study made by the International Union of Railways among its member countries which shows that public transport, particularly the railway system, is not a "vector of transmission" of COVID-19.

"Makikita rin sa data na from the time na binawasan na ang social distancing sa transport sector, makikita actually na bumaba ang COVID-19 cases sa mga bansang ito. Ipinapakita lang na hindi sa public transport nagmumula ang transmission ng virus," he said.

(The data also shows that from the time that social distancing in transport sector has been reduced, COVID-19 cases in these countries have actually decreased. It just shows that the transmission of the virus does not come from public transport)

According to Tuazon, the study also revealed that among these countries, only the Philippines is enforcing the one-meter distancing between passengers in public transport.

The department has started to implement the relaxed physical distancing in all modes of public transport on Monday -- reducing to 0.75 meters the current health standard requirement of at least one-meter distance as recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO).

This will be further adjusted every after two weeks to 0.5 meters starting Sept. 28, then to 0.3 meters on Oct. 12.

The new policy was enforced after the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) recently approved the proposal pushed by the Economic Development Cluster (EDC) and the DOTr to increase ridership in public transportation by optimizing or reducing the physical distance between commuters.

However, this has been greeted with criticisms from various sectors including transport and health organizations, as well as other government officials who raised concerns that this could have a negative impact on the current flattening of the curve in the country.

Alliance of Concerned Transport Organizations (ACTO) president Efren de Luna slammed the new order of the DOTr, adding that the government should just allow the resumption of all modes of public transport instead of reducing physical distancing guidelines.

But according to Tuazon, the Department is already implementing this suggestion through the gradual opening of routes of public utility vehicles (PUVs) in areas where they are allowed to operate.

"Ginagawa na po namin ang pagdadagdag ng mga PUVs. Sa katunayan, 28 na mga bagong ruta para sa 1,159 traditional jeeps ang binuksan ng LTFRB (Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board) ngayon," he said.

(We are already working on this. In fact, the LTFRB has now opened 28 new routes for 1,159 traditional jeeps.)

Tuazon said that the request to ease physical distancing measures in public transport came from the riding public as many workers continued to go back to their workplaces under a more relaxed general community quarantine.

"Nagmula po ang request ngreduced physical distancing in public transport sa mga mamamayan dahil nagbubukas na ang ating ekonomiya at kailangang makapasok na sa trabaho ang mga tao," Tuazon said.

(The request for a reduced physical distancing in public transport came from the public because our economy is opening up and people need to get to work)

"Matagal na rin pong hinihiling na tulungan natin ang pagbubukas ng ekonomiya sa pamamagitan ng pagbubukas ng public transport para makapunta sa kani-kanilang trabaho ang ating mga mamamayan," he added.

(We are also being asked to help open the economy through opening public transport so that our people can go to their respective workplaces)

With the new distancing policy in place, Tuazon reminded the riding public to strictly observe health and safety protocols being implemented by the DOTr, as well as the Department of Health while inside PUVs to further curb the transmission of the virus.

The DOTr said they are monitoring the reduced physical distancing implemented today in public transportation for two weeks to see if it is working and there are no problems.

It said public transportation will revert back to the one-meter physical distancing if the reduced physical distance of .75 meters being implemented now does not work.

“In the span of two weeks we will be studying it,” said Tuazon during an interview on CNN Philippines amid criticisms over the directive of the IATF for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases to reduce physical distancing in public transportation.

“If there are any problems we encountered during the two-week period we will revert back to one meter,” he said.

Physical distancing in public transportation will be further reduced to .5 meters starting Sept. 28 and then .3 meters starting Oct. 12 under the IATF order.

“Now if there are no problems, we reduce to .5. Then another two weeks we study it. Again if there are no problems, then maybe we can reduce it to .3. So it will be something that will be monitored, studied, and enforced,” Tuazon said.

The DOTr Undersecretary assured that public transportation will not be overcrowded.

"We will still maintain distancing. We merely reduced it,” Tuazon said.

With the .75-meter physical distancing in place, he noted that this only translates to an additional one or two passengers in jeepneys and allowing buses to have standing passengers.

Tuazon defended the IATF’s decision to reduce physical distancing in public transportation as a way to address the difficulties of commuters in getting rides.

He said the decision was based on the recommendation of the group of medical experts led by Dr. Tony Dans as well as the study conducted by the International Union of Railways.

“They don’t think distance by itself will actually defeat the transmission of the virus,” Tuazon said.

“There are other protocols in place like the face masks, the face shields, the hand washing, the temperature checking, and the disinfecting of the public transport that actually help to prevent the transmission,” he pointed out.

Though the World Health Organization (WHO) has been recommending a physical distance of one meter, Tuazon said this recommendation was made way back in the 1980s when no pandemic occurred and did not consider other measures like the wearing face masks, face shields, and disinfection.

During the IATF meeting, Tuazon recounted that the reduced physical distancing measure was supported and recommended by the Economic Development Council and that no objections were made by the Department of Health (DoH) and the local government sector.