'PH's COVID pandemic exit plan must be initiated,' IATF urged

The government's pandemic task force is being urged to take initial steps in taking the Philippines out of a pandemic mindset, like easing coronavirus (COVID-19) restrictions for the entry of international travelers to the country.

Presidential Adviser for Entrepreneurship and Go Negosyo founder Joey Concepcion, together with molecular biologist and OCTA Research fellow Fr. Nicanor Austriaco (file photos)

In a letter to the Inter-agency Task Force (IATF) for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases, Presidential Adviser for Entrepreneurship Joey Concepcion and molecular biologist and OCTA Research fellow Fr. Nicanor Austriaco made suggestions on how to do this.

Concepcion and Austriaco suggested the reinstatement of the international travel protocols in place prior to December 3, 2021, namely: pre-departure testing within 24 hours of departure using either an RT-PCR or rapid antigen test, with additional PCR-based test upon arrival; three-day quarantine; and arrival testing on the third day of the quarantine, with exit permitted upon showing a negative result.

These protocols were already approved and being implemented but were put on hold when the Omicron variant drove up COVID cases in the country.

"At this time, the Omicron surge has peaked in the NCR (National Capital Region) and is expected to peak in the different regions of the country in the next two weeks," they stated in the letter.

"In its wake, this surge will confer significant population protection throughout the archipelago," they added.

They also pointed out that a significant number of Filipinos have already acquired immunity from COVID-19, either through infection-acquired immunity or through vaccination.

"We put forward these suggestions as the country’s economic health is now a serious, time-sensitive issue," Concepcion and Austriaco said in their letter.

The two believe that opening up the country to the world by easing and simplifying travel restrictions will redound to many downstream benefits to the economy, especially the micro-, small and medium enterprises, which make up 99.5 percent of the country’s businesses.

Concepcion said that among the Asian countries, only the Philippines, Myanmar, and Japan have the strictest travel restrictions while the rest have either lifted curfews and stay-at-home orders, opened their borders to non-citizens and non-residents, and have allowed all or most commercial flights to the country.

Austriaco added that Thailand’s "test-and-go" system might also be possible for the Philippines since it is now in a better place to do so after having had an Omicron wave.

Meanwhile, the Go Negosyo founder believes that the country’s travel restrictions can be further eased without compromising safety by scrapping facility-based quarantines and instead requiring only home quarantines. He added that travelers who have had COVID within 60 days should be exempted from quarantine so as to further decongest bottlenecks at quarantine facilities.

He suggested re-allocating resources used in facility quarantines to more intensive surveillance of positive COVID-19 cases among arriving passengers as this would generate more useful data in guiding future policy.

"The next few months will be critical in how the country will move on from the pandemic," Concepcion said.

"I believe the government should set an example and start opening the country to the world. This will instill confidence in the vaccines and encourage more of our countrymen to take them," he added.