MANILA – The government’s Hatid Tulong program has so far helped transport around 54,000 stranded individuals back to their home provinces, with about 13,000 more waiting to be assisted.
“As of yesterday, we were able to send home almost 54,000 LSIs (locally stranded individuals). This is in collaboration with different government agencies,” said Assistant Secretary Joseph Encabo of the Presidential Management Staff, head of the Hatid Tulong program.
Encabo explained that the Hatid Tulong initiative is a transportation assistance program intended to help stranded people affected by the COVID-19 lockdown to return to their home provinces.
This is different from the Balik Probinsiya, Bagong Pagasa Program, a long-term initiative aimed at enticing people to return to their respective hometowns.
Officials have earlier said the program targets those who left their home provinces hoping to land jobs elsewhere, including Metro Manila, but ended up as informal settlers.
“Right now, we still have a pending 13,000 LSIs that were about to assist,” he said on ANC’s Matters of Fact program on Friday morning.
Encabo said government is looking at a period of 2 to 3 months to transport all remaining stranded individuals. He cited challenges due to limited government-owned transport assets.
“We cannot send them in bulk, in high numbers. What we’re looking at right now is to partner with private sector in order to successfully implement the Hatid Tulong initiative,” he said.
The average waiting time for a stranded individual to be transported back to his province is around 3 weeks, he said, as this would depend on the availability of the transportation assets provided.
“We also use the sea vessels of the coast guard, of BFAR (Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources) and navy. They voyage for around 6 days, take 2 to 3 days of rest, and afterwards they schedule for another transportation (trip),” he said.
The availability of sweeper flights, on the other hand, depends on the schedules provided by airline companies in coordination with receiving local government units.
Also on Friday, the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) said it was arranging mass travel to bring stranded passengers back to their home provinces in Region 8 (Eastern Visayas) after the 14-day suspension of return trips in the area.
The suspension was aimed at controlling local transmission of COVID-19. Quarantine facilities in Region 8 could no longer accommodate more individuals.
But Encabo stressed that the Hatid Tulong program is never a contributor to the spike in COVID-19 cases.
“Before they boarded or deployed, we make sure that they went through proper medical protocols. Once tested positive before departure, we make sure the Department of Health and Bureau of Quarantine will take care of them and have them isolated or put them in quarantine for 14 days and subject to confirmatory test,” he said.
He said it is unfair to link the program to the spike in infections. But he admitted that there are stranded individuals whose movements were unsupervised and without proper coordination.
Interior Secretary Eduardo Año also said that some stranded individuals illegally travel back to their home provinces, paying off cargo ship crew to get a ride.
Meanwhile, around 3,500 to 4,000 stranded individuals are awaiting clearance to return to Cebu, a COVID-19 hotspot currently under enhanced community quarantine, the strictest lockdown level.
The Department of Health has identified Cebu island and parts of Eastern Visayas as new hotspots of the COVID-19 outbreak as cases of the disease continued to rise in these areas.
“We cannot risk the LSIs going back to Cebu City or Cebu province because of the surge of cases. We explained to the LSIs that we have to suspend temporarily the entry in Cebu,” he said.