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September 18, 2020

Gov’t Suspends Reduced Transport Distancing; House Members Want More PUVs Back On The Road

Gov’t Suspends Reduced Transport Distancing; House Members Want More PUVs Back On The Road Commuters at the MRT-3 North Avenue station follow protocols on the first day of the implementation of the Department of Transportation's reduced physical distancing on Sept. 14, 2020. Photo by Michael Varcas, The Philippine STAR

The government suspended on Thursday, Sept. 17, the implementation of the reduced physical distancing requirement in public transportation after some sectors expressed fears that it could lead to a spike in coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) infections.

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque Jr. said the relaxed transport protocol, which reduced the distancing requirement from one meter to 0.75, would be put on hold pending President Duterte’s decision on the matter. Duterte is expected to announce his decision in a televised public address on Monday, Sept. 21.

“During the meeting of the IATF (Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases), which is still ongoing, DOTr (Department of Transportation) Secretary (Arthur) Tugade said the implementation of 0.75 distancing in public transport would be suspended temporarily,” Roque said in a press briefing.

“We are back to one-meter distancing in public transportation pending the decision of the President on whether it can be reduced to 0.75,” he added.

Roque disclosed that the IATF's recommendation on public transportation remains, but it would be up to the President to decide whether to accept it.

“When Secretary Tugade was talking, he said, ‘I don’t want to pressure the President into making his decision as if he is, you know, duty-bound to make it within a period of time.’ If it is implemented, it becomes urgent, the President must act on it right away,” Roque said.

The government had agreed to relax the physical distancing requirement in public transport in expectation of more workers reporting to their offices due to the easing of lockdowns. The one-meter distancing requirement was reduced to 0.75 on Sept. 14. Officials have said the requirement may be eased further to 0.5 starting Sept. 28 and to 0.3 beginning Oct. 12.

Some Cabinet members and health experts, however, are concerned that the easing of the transport protocol would result in higher COVID-19 infections.

Officials who support the relaxed distancing protocol claim the virus can be contained if health protocols such as the wearing of face masks and face shields as well as the prohibition against eating and talking inside public transportation are strictly observed.

Former health secretary Manuel Dayrit believes coronavirus transmission can be avoided through a package of health interventions including the wearing of face masks and shields and good ventilation.

“The physical distancing of one meter... I will respectfully beg to disagree with what they are saying, that it cannot be compromised because it was recommended by WHO (World Health Organization),” Dayrit said.

“WHO makes certain norms and standards. And you remember, they’re trying to do this for all countries. But when they do these norms and standards, it’s not dogma. That is not gospel truth. In fact, WHO asked the countries to deal with this according to their own context. And therefore, it is not correct to say that it cannot be reduced. Of course it protects, but what we’re saying is you have to combine it with other interventions,” Dayrit explained.

He cited a study from Duke University suggested that the use of face masks is highly effective in preventing the spread of the virus. He said the study found that the most effective N95 mask could prevent the release of droplets.

Most people, however, use only cloth masks, reserving the expensive N95 and other surgical masks to medical frontliners, as requested by health officials.

“If we reduce physical distancing by less than one meter to 0.75, to 0.5, even to 0.3, you will have less protection. But what we are saying is if you use face mask, face shield and you’re not talking, you’re doing ventilation, disinfection, all of these will help decrease the infection and the risk of infection in public transport,” Dayrit argued.

“So you have to take this as a full package, OK. Hindi lang physical distancing ang isyu dito.  If you just argue by physical distancing, that is not appropriate. I mean, you are missing out on other interventions that we could use. And also, we are doing this only in public transport so that our people can move, so that the economy can open,” he stated.

Opponents of the move have said the remedy is to field more public transport vehicles, whose drivers and operators have also been financially devastated by the lockdowns, instead of reducing the distancing requirement.

House members also differ

Members of the House of Representatives also differ on the issue.

Economic affairs committee chair and AAMBIS-OWA party-list Rep. Sharon Garin supported the decision of the DOTr, believing that the move is a “step toward the right direction, provided proper health protocols and risk management are practiced.”

“Transportation is integrated and interconnected with all businesses. This is the primary and most important component in reviving our economy,” the economist-lawmaker stressed.

“Without public transport, people can’t go to work and businesses won’t open. When supply of public transportation is less than demand, people forgo social distancing. The wheels of the economy won’t start turning without ample public transportation,” Garin contended.

Citing studies in Japan and France, Garin supported the opinion of Dayrit and Esperanza Cabral, also a former health secretary, that the spread of the coronavirus could still be contained despite eased physical distancing through constant wearing of face mask and shield and limiting close-range conversations.

Garin said the economy lost P21.3 billion per month due to the suspension of public transportation during the lockdowns.

But four other lawmakers  – economist Stella Quimbo of Marikina, Claudine Diana Bautista of DUMPER-PTDA party-list, Alfredo Garbin Jr. of AKO Bicol party-list and Ronnie Ong of Ang Probinsyano – opposed the DOTr’s move.

They argued that there are other options that the DOTr could pursue to address the shortage in public transport.

“When it comes to the correct physical distance between passengers, we should leave it to science. If science requires one meter to avoid transmission, then we should follow.  What we need to do then is simply increase the number of public utility vehicles so that supply of public transportation is sufficient,” Quimbo explained.

Bautista pressed the DOTr to pursue other options to address the problem.

“I strongly urge an immediate increase in number of permitted PUVs – specifically jeepneys, buses, taxis, TNVS (transport network vehicle service), UV Express, tricycles, and if possible motorcycle taxis, as well as increased operational capacity for our LRT (Light Rail Transit), MRT (Metro Rail Transit) and PNR (Philippine National Railways), all of which shall observe strict proper health protocols,” the transportation committee vice chair said in a privilege speech.

“DOTr should not be like gods playing with the lives of commuters. The firmer solution is the deployment of more vehicles and drivers who comply with the health and safety protocols. More buses and more jeepneys. More tricycles allowed to bring commuters to transport stations. More bike lanes and safety lanes for scooters, preferably on safer alternate routes,” Garbin added.

Ong agreed and asked DOTr to just open more routes for public utility vehicles or PUVs to address the shortage in public transportation since Metro Manila and most urban areas started reopening businesses under eased quarantine measures.

“Instead of re-calibrating social distancing weekly, why not listen instead to the call of many PUVs to open more routes? Right now there are only a few routes of jeeps and buses allowed. That’s why there’s shortage,” he lamented.

At the House hearing earlier this week on the agency’s proposed budget for 2021, DOTr officials defended the move that they said would address the insufficiency of public transport for commuters in Metro Manila and other areas where most businesses have reopened.

Tugade emphasized the need to address the shortage in public transport as he said the agency is also pursuing other measures to answer the increasing demand from commuters.

He explained that apart from increasing public transport availability, the measure is also meant to help the public transport sector recover from the slump caused by lockdown measures.

The Department of Health (DOH) did not support the move and asked the public to opt for public transportation that could implement the one-meter social distancing protocol. Interior Secretary Eduardo Año and DOH Secretary Francisco Duque III called the one-meter distancing protocol “non-negotiable.”

Labor coalition Nagkaisa also urged the IATF not to allow less than one meter distance between passengers in public transportation to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

"The reduction of one-meter physical distancing standard will put workers at risk and their lives in peril in this time of COVID pandemic.  Their suggestion is not supported by scientific evidence," Nagkaisa said in a statement. – With Mayen Jaymalin

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