Restrictions on other territories up for review
MANILA (3RD UPDATE) - The Philippines on Friday lifted its travel ban to Taiwan after it imposed restrictions in the self-governing territory to curb the spread of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).
The government's decision came as Taiwan threatened sanctions against the Philippines, including scrapping visa-free privilege for Filipinos.
In a statement, Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo said government's Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Disease (IATF) "has resolved to lift the travel restrictions imposed upon Taiwan, effective immediately."
"Accordingly, travel may now be made by any national to Taiwan from the Philippines and vice versa," he said.
He said the task force reached the decision given strict measures and protocol Taiwan has been undertaking against the spread of the virus.
The Philippines included Taiwan on its travel ban after initially imposing restrictions on travel to China and its territories Hong Kong and Macau amid the outbreak of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), which began in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
A Philippine health official later explained Taiwan was part of the ban, saying the Philippines recognizes it as part of China. Philippine Representative to Taiwan Angelito Banayo had said this infuriated the Taiwanese government.
Taiwan said it welcomes the lifting, reiterating that it "has taken all measures needed to contain the spread" of COVID-19.
"Taiwan will continue to work closely with the international community, including the Philippines, to fight against the COVID-19 to safeguard the health and welfare of humanity," said the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO), its mission in Manila.
It said it "attaches great importance to its long-standing relationship" with the Philippines and is "determined to strengthen our bilateral ties and promote our people-to-people connectivity."
"TECO would like to express deep appreciation to all Filipino friends who have voiced their sincere support for removing Taiwan from the temporary travel ban. We especially commend the Manila Economic and Cultural Office for its tireless efforts to help remove Taiwan from the travel ban," it said.
Banayo, head of the Manila Economic and Cultural Office in Taipei, meanwhile, thanked the IATF "for their open-mindedness" in reconsidering the Taiwan travel ban.
"MECO and the 160,000 overseas Filipinos here are very thankful for their quick action, and the President for his openness and concern," he said.
He made special mention of Tourism Secretary Berna Romulo-Puyat, Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. and Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea for urgently convening the IATF to discuss the matter.
"We also thank [Health Secretary Francisco] Duque for his appreciation of the strict protocols that we at MECO have undertaken to prevent any possibility of a spread of the COVID 19 contagion," he said.
The Department of Tourism (DOT) also welcomed the lifting, saying it may minimize the impact of the COVID-19 fears on the local tourism industry.
“The lifting of the travel ban on Taiwan is highly assuring and we hope that the nCov crisis would soon be resolved, worldwide. Ultimately, the recovery of all affected countries is a universal prayer, especially that tourism is an inclusive and sustainable business for and of the people,” said Tourism Secretary Bernadette-Romulo-Puyat.
BAN LIFTING A 'PUBLIC HEALTH' DECISION
The lifting of the travel ban on Taiwan was purely a "public health" decision, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III explained as he dismissed speculation that the government backtracked on the restriction following Taiwan's threat of removing visa-free entry for Filipinos.
"That has nothing to do with it. 'Yung amin is purely on public health and public safety, and of course the need to see if there is a threat or increased risk if we didn't allow the travel from Taiwan to the Philippines," Duque told reporters in Malacañang.
Among the factors considered for the lifting of the travel ban were the absence of local transmission of COVID-19 in Taiwan, and the "relatively low" volume of travelers from Taipei to Manila, Duque said.
"We have said from the very start that this will be subject to risk assessment and this is a temporary ban to begin with," Duque added.
On Thursday, Taiwan said it was mulling countermeasures if the Philippines would not lift the travel ban.
"We will continue to communicate with the Philippines and explain that this is a one-sided and wrong decision by the Philippines' health ministry, which has already affected the relationship between the 2 countries of Taiwan and the Philippines," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Joanne Ou told reporters in Taipei.
Taiwan said it had only 18 cases of the virus compared to some 60,000 in China.
Several Filipino workers and members of the Philippine community in Taiwan had also asked the national government in Manila to lift the travel ban.
Some 410 workers signed an appeal letter to President Rodrigo Duterte, a copy of which was obtained by ABS-CBN News, amid concerns that the Philippines' travel restriction on Taiwan would prevent some of them from complying with their contract.
Nearly 160,000 Filipinos live and work in Taiwan, mainly in factories and as household helpers.
TRAVEL BAN ON OTHER AREAS
Panelo also said the task force would evaluate the ban on other jurisdictions, including Macau, for "possible lifting" given preventive protocol against the virus.
"The Office of the President likewise stresses that any resolution relative to travel restrictions in connection with the COVID-19 shall be subjected to regular review by the IATF," he said.
Duque said the task force would conduct "periodic assessment" of the ban on China's territories.
He added that Manila would request the Beijing government to provide updates on protocols being followed by Macau against the COVID-19 outbreak.
The task force also formed a technical working group to study and formulate recommendations in relation to the prevailing travel restrictions imposed by Manila.
"The recommendations of the TWG (technical working group) shall be immediately submitted to the member agencies of the IATF for approval," the resoultion stated.