MANILA — The Philippines is "acting with a sense of urgency" to keep out the newly discovered Omicron COVID-19 variant, government said on Monday, as it explained why it excluded Hong Kong and other areas from a travel ban.
The government has backpedaled on a plan to allow the entry of some vaccinated foreign tourists starting Dec. 1, and banned the entry of travelers from more countries under a "Red List."
"We are acting with a sense of urgency. Agad naman pong nagdedesisyon ang IATF, agad naman pong kino-convene, kinokonsulta ang ating mga expert," said Malacañang acting spokesman Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles.
(The IATF decides immediately, our experts are quickly convened and consulted.)
The COVID-19 task force on Sunday placed Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium and Italy under the Red List. The travel ban initially covered South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Eswatini, and Mozambique.
But former government adviser Dr. Tony Leachon on Monday urged government to review the list and include Hong Kong due to its proximity and high volume of overseas Filipino workers.
Nograles said the Red List only includes territories that have local cases of the Omicron variant.
If the country has an imported case, he said, "We have the option of retaining the status of the country, whether Yellow or Green."
The IATF can "override" this if it is not confident of a certain territory's genomic surveillance against Omicron, added Nograles.
The Philippines, which is one of the region's worst-hit countries in terms of infections, deaths and economic losses, has gradually reopened its borders and economy.
Its new daily case count dropped to 838 on Sunday, the lowest since December 2020 - compared with a record peak of more than 26,000 in September - after having fully inoculated more than 35 million Filipinos, or 46 percent of the targeted population.
The goal is to increase the number of vaccinated individuals to 54 million by year-end, or 70 percent of the targeted population, 77 million by the end of March 2022, and 90 million by end-June, according to Carlito Galvez Jr, who leads the government's vaccination strategy.
"We’ll take it one day at a time, one step at a time. Ang mensahe ko na lang po siguro, we’ve been through this before at ang IATF, agaran naman kung kinakailangan mag-convene," Nograles said.
"At kung kinakailangan na agaran magbigay ng mga new policy, directives, actions ay agad naman nating ginagawa," he added.
(Perhaps my message is we’ve been through this before and the IATF immediately convenes if needed. If we need to give new policy, directives, actions, we do this quickly.)
— With reports from Jamaine Punzalan, ABS-CBN News; Reuters