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September 15, 2020

Reduced Commuter Distancing Up For Review; DILG Agrees More Public Transportation Must Be Deployed

Reduced Commuter Distancing Up For Review; DILG Agrees More Public Transportation Must Be Deployed MRT-3 commuters observe the reduced physical distancing protocol by the Department of Transportation on Monday morning, Sept. 14, 2020. Photo by Michael Varcas

The government is open to a dialogue on its decision to reduce the physical distancing requirement in public transportation, which some health experts fear could lead to an increase in coronavirus disease 2019 or COVID-19 infections.

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said while the government aims to reopen the economy by increasing the available modes of public transport, it would not ignore the concerns of health experts.

“We won’t be able to reopen the economy if we don’t increase our transportation. But of course we won’t play deaf to the opinion of our medical frontliners. So this issue will be reopened (on Tuesday, Sept. 15), the next meeting of IATF (Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases),” Roque said in a press briefing on Monday, Sept. 14.

“Let’s wait for the result of the discussion of the IATF on this matter,” he added.

The physical distancing requirement in mass transport was relaxed starting Monday, Sept. 14, as the government expects more people to return to work. The distancing requirement was reduced from one meter to 0.75 meters and may be eased further to 0.5 beginning Sept. 28 and to 0.3 meters starting Oct. 12.

Roque said the IATF approved the relaxed distancing requirement last Thursday, Sept. 10, but has not presented it to President Duterte.

“When it was approved, nobody objected because I was present in that meeting. So the objections came after it was announced by DOTr (Department of Transportation),” the Palace spokesman disclosed. “The medical frontliners have some observations and we cannot disregard them. We will listen to this [on Tuesday].”

Among the groups that will meet with the IATF is the University of the Philippines OCTA Research team, which had earlier reported that the COVID transmission curve in the country was finally flattening. UP professor Ranjit Rye of OCTA said Monday that their group is against the easing of the distancing requirement, which could reverse hard-won gains of the past six months.

More public transportation needed

Deploying more units of public transportation is better than enforcing fixed distance between passengers in cramped public utility vehicles (PUVs), according to the Department of the Interior and Local Government.

DILG Secretary Eduardo Año, who co-chairs the National Task Force Against COVID-19, said he had “manifested” his reservation against the measure as he preferred the continuation of the prescribed one-meter physical distancing in public transportation to prevent the spread of the virus.

“Personally, I would like to abide by the one-meter minimum standard of physical distancing. If we can actually provide more transport to our people rather than reducing the distancing, that would be better,” Año said in a television interview on Monday.

Año admitted the measure was approved collectively by government officials as a concession to the economic sector, which has been complaining that the one-meter distancing was not enough to ferry workers, thus affecting businesses and the economy.

But even so, Año said the measure would still be subject to further discussions, considering that there were other proposals made by other agencies. Medical professionals will be given time to argue against the proposal before the IATF today.

When asked what the other proposals were, Año said they include “absolutely no talking, no removing of masks, no answering of phones.” The other proposals involve requiring PUVs to install barriers between passengers, having marshals monitor PUVs, and installing CCTVs for contact tracing.

Opposition mounts

Medical professionals have criticized the reduced space among commuters, with some calling it counterintuitive from a scientific standpoint and counterproductive for virus containment measures. Some doctors also advised commuters to keep the one-meter distance from other passengers.

An alliance of doctors from various fields on Monday joined the opposition to the move of the DOTr to reduce the distancing in various modes of public transportation, saying it would aggravate coronavirus transmission.

According to Health Professional Alliance Against COVID-19  (HPAAC) co-convenor Antonio Dans, the DOTr’s policy of lessening the number of physical transportation is not beneficial to the country’s response to COVID-19.

“Based on the model that we made, it appears that cases will increase, but the question is how many,” Dans said in a press briefing.

HPAAC is the group that asked the government for a “timeout” in August to allow the government to recalibrate its response and prevent health workers from becoming overwhelmed as COVID-19 cases surged. Because of this, President Duterte reverted Metro Manila and the provinces of Bulacan, Cavite, Rizal and Laguna to a two-week modified enhanced community quarantine.

For Edsel Maurice Salvana, director of the Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at the National Institutes of Health at the University of the Philippines Manila, the “net effect of physical distancing alone in decreasing COVID-19 transmission is about 82 percent.”

On the other hand, the net effect of face masks alone is 85 percent and 78 percent for eye protection/face shield.

Salvana noted there are “not good prospective studies that show the combined effect of all these interventions, and we also don’t know how well people stick to them in public transport.”

“Therefore, there is no clear evidence to support or refute the decision to decrease the physical distance in public transport as long as people are wearing masks and face shields,” he said.

In a separate press briefing, Department of Health (DOH) Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said more discussions will be conducted regarding the new policy.

“Let’s see what happens in the coming days,  what will be the outcome of that,” she said.

In a statement, the DOH said the DOTr, “being the lead agency, shall be responsible for issuing and enforcing transport guidelines to ensure that the public’s health and safety shall not be compromised.”

“Given the recent decision of the DOTr to ‘optimize physical distancing in transportation’ and in the interest of public health, we enjoin all Filipinos to be extra vigilant in situations where distancing cannot be practiced, and if possible, choose to participate in activities or use transport options that can afford at least one-meter distancing,” the DOH added.

University of the Philippines College of Medicine professor Gene Nisperos, also of the group Second Opinion, called out the DOH for its “spineless politics” and demanded the resignation of its leadership.

“The DOH, the lead agency in health, has the obligation to ensure the health and safety of Filipinos. But instead of telling the DOTr how its plan is putting commuters in danger, the DOH chooses this kind of double speak,” Nisperos said in a Twitter post on Sept. 14.

Nisperos lamented that “commuters have no choice” but to deal with a government agency that is “taking risks that other people will pay for with their lives.”

Be consistent

Metro Manila mayors also asked for consistency in the government guidelines for the commuting public.

Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) general manager Jojo Garcia in an online briefing said while the mayors respected the decision to ease the physical distancing rule, they raised concerns about the inconsistency between ensuring at least a meter of physical distance in queues and then allowing less than a meter distance upon riding public transportation.

“I don’t want to preempt (the IATF). But the concern of our local government units is that one-meter distancing is being enforced among those lining up for public transportation, but 0.75 will be enforced once inside,” Garcia pointed out.

“It is inconsistent… The mayors just want the (standards) to be consistent,” he said even as the IATF assured commuters of their safety once inside public transportation as plastic barriers will be in place between passengers.
During their meeting on Sunday, Sept. 13, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III promised to submit to the mayors a study about the benefits and disadvantages of reducing social distancing, which is a trend being done in other countries, Garcia said.

“We really need to balance it with the economy. Even though we open our economy to the workforce, and they do not have any public transportation to take, then it would be useless. The economy would still not run,” he pointed out.

Asked why the government preferred to reduce the physical distancing rule instead of deploying more public transportation vehicles, Garcia said operators could no longer deploy more vehicles due to their losses from the reduced passenger capacity.

“We need to balance it – how to ensure they would not lose income (while) at the same time commuters would be able to get a ride to work,” Garcia said.

Mobility group coalition Move As One opposed reducing the physical distance, and questioned why the DOTr did not just increase the supply of public transportation instead.

“Physical distancing remains the key to safely moving large numbers of people again as the economy reopens. Easing the physical distancing rules to less than one meter goes against the current scientific advice to control the spread of the coronavirus,” the coalition said in a statement.

The group proposed to “address our public transport shortage by making more vehicles available instead of compromising minimum public health standards and putting many lives at risk.”

The group said more traditional jeepneys should be deployed because it would be safer for commuters to travel in open air vehicles due to proper ventilation.

The coalition also suggested that more funds be allocated for active transportation infrastructure such as dedicated PUV lanes, cashless fare collection systems, protected bike lanes, at-grade crosswalks and wider walkways. It also suggested engaging transport workers in service contracting.

“We believe that investing a substantial amount will reverse years of underinvestment in road-based public transportation,” the coalition said, noting that road-based public transport received only around P12 billion in investments, or only 0.01 percent of the gross domestic product from 2016 to 2019.

Navotas City Mayor Toby Tiangco also opposed the latest distancing guidelines, calling it “illogical” to go against the minimum health standard of one to two meters.

“It’s been six months that we’ve been teaching the public about the importance of distancing. It makes no sense to reduce this especially in enclosed spaces where the risk of transmission is higher,” Tiangco said on Facebook.

Policy supported

The managements of the Light Rail Transit and Metro Rail Transit supported the move of the national government to lessen the physical distancing allowed in trains.

The queues were long at the train stations as more passengers were accommodated with reduced physical distancing in public transportation.

In a statement, the Light Rail Manila Corp. (LRMC), which operates the LRT-1, said it would ensure the observance of strict health and safety protocols despite the reduced physical distancing among people.

"Reducing the physical distance doesn’t mean we will be complacent or we will take things for granted. Rail actually offers the fastest journey, so it is still safer since there is less time for possible exposure," LRMC president Juan Alfonso said.

He also pointed out that increasing the train capacity “can help in smoothening out peak or rush hours” that usually leads to extremely long lines that spill over into the streets.

“Higher transport supply is also a smart way to ensure social distancing because it can help in smoothing out peak or rush hours,” he said.

Alfonso expressed support for the reopening of the economy.  “Our protocols are based on global best practices benchmarked from ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and Japan,” he declared.

The MRT-3 management also said in a separate statement that it would continue with the strict implementation of health and safety protocols.

“The higher passenger capacity in trains is supported by data in physical simulations,” it stated.

Talking and answering phone calls will still be banned in the trains.

The DOTr earlier said that once the reduced physical distancing is mandated, up to 300 people could be accommodated in the LRT-1, 502 in LRT-2, 286 in the MRT-3 and 320 in the Philippine National Railways trains.

On the first day of relaxed guidelines, the DOTr in a Sept. 14 statement continued to claim that it was “responding to the clamor of the people that public transport be opened up since there are more people going out of their homes to earn.”

It said the protocols would be “subject to changes should there be any concern after the implementation.”

“And as in any policy adoption, we have always been guided by our mandate to uphold public interest, even as we delicately navigate the need to balance the promotion and protection of public health, and the need for mobility and connectivity in the resumption of economic activities, to help the country get back on its feet,” the DOTr said.

As for non-rail transport modes, health experts and groups pointed out that the government should just increase the number of PUVs that may resume their operations instead of risking the health of passengers and transport workers in crowded units.

Incidentally, the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board announced on Monday that it would allow 1,159 traditional public utility jeepneys back on the streets to ply 28 routes. The comments section of the agency’s Facebook page remains flooded with complaints by people relying on other routes that were still not reopened even though community quarantines had been relaxed. – With Marc Jayson Cayabyab, Ralph Edwin Villanueva

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