MANILA (3rd UPDATE) — President Rodrigo Duterte has suspended flights from the United Kingdom to the Philippines starting Dec. 24 over fears of a new strain of the virus that causes COVID-19, Malacañang said on Wednesday.
Duterte approved on Tuesday the flight suspension from Dec. 24 at 12:01 a.m., until Dec. 31, said his spokesman Harry Roque.
"All passengers who have been in the UK within fourteen (14) days immediately preceding arrival to the Philippines, including those merely in transit, are also temporarily restricted from entering the country for the same period," Roque said in a statement.
"On the other hand, passengers already in transit from the UK and all those who have been to the UK within 14 days immediately preceding arrival to the Philippines, who arrive before 12:01AM of December 24, 2020, shall not be subject to entry restriction, but they would be required to undergo stricter quarantine and testing protocols," he added.
These protocols include a 14-day quarantine at the Athlete’s Village in the New Clark City in Tarlac and a negative RT-PCR test result, Roque said.
"Outbound travel to the UK shall likewise be subject to the existing exit protocols of the Philippines and the UK," he added.
Malacañang announced the travel ban less than 24 hours before it was to take effect.
"Ensuring public health and safety takes precedence," Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat said of the flight suspensions, as quoted by her agency.
"With this temporary suspension, the DOT empathizes with the affected families who would not be able to spend the holidays with their loved ones from the UK," the tourism department said in a statement.
The immigration bureau is "constrained" to implement the ban "to ensure that our healthcare system is given ample time to respond to this latest development on the pandemic," said its Commissioner Jaime Morente.
Filipinos who enter the country from the UK starting Dec. 24 will be referred to the Bureau of Quarantine (BOQ) and the One Stop Shop for implementation of strict quarantine and testing protocols, he said in a statement.
UK scientists have identified a new variant of the coronavirus that appears to be more contagious than, and genetically distinct from, more established variants.
Initial studies of the new variant prompted British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to tighten restrictions over Christmas, and spurred officials in the Netherlands, Germany and other European countries to ban travel from the UK.
Roque urged the public to heed the advice of the World Health Organization cautioning against major alarm over the coronavirus variant.
Health Secretary Francisco Duque III said Wednesday that initial analysis from the Philippine Genome Center at the University of the Philippines showed that the UK variant is not yet detected in the country.
However, “given the anticipated surge this holiday season, we cannot afford another factor that may affect the transmission rate of SARS-CoV-2,” he said.
The Philippines recently allowed the entry of foreign investors, and partners and children of Filipinos.
The task force leading the country's COVID-19 response also allowed foreign nationals with visas who will leave the Philippines starting Dec. 17 to reenter the country as long as their visas remain valid on the day of their arrival.
They should also have a pre-booked quarantine facility, and a pre-booked COVID-19 testing at an airport laboratory.
The Philippines has recorded a total of 464,004 confirmed coronavirus infections, as of Wednesday, including 24,984 active cases, 9,048 deaths, and 429,972 recoveries.
- With reports from Kristine Sabillo of ABS-CBN News, and The New York Times