The government’s decision to gradually reduce physical distancing between passengers in public transportation stays unless revoked by President Rodrigo Duterte, the Palace said Wednesday.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque made this remark after the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) reviewed the policy following the opposition raised by medical groups.
However, the vice president of the Philippine College of Physicians suggested that businesses could stagger their opening hours so that employees do not need to rush to work and catch public transport at the same time.
Dr. Maricar Limpin said this could be an alternative to reducing physical distancing in public transport vehicles. She also said there was a need to come up with other programs to ensure that commuters have access to health and safe transportation.
Researchers from the University of the Philippines who have been tracking the coronavirus pandemic on Wednesday said overcrowding is a major source of infection, even if passengers wear face masks and face shields.
“Overcrowding is one of the major sources of infection. That’s been proven,” said Guido David of the UP OCTA research group.
“If the required distance will only be about a ruler’s length, we will have a problem with overcrowding, which will bring a high risk of transmission. If for example, we are in a bus, it can be packed. It will be like before where people are jammed together,” he said in Filipino.
Instead of easing distancing requirements, David suggested that the government should provide more modes of transport.
David said when distancing is reduced to 0.3 meters or about the length of a ruler, a bus could have as many as 100 passengers. A lone passenger with COVID-19 could infect up to 35 percent of the people in the same vehicle, he added.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has urged the public to keep a one-meter distance from others to dodge the virus. When someone coughs, sneezes, or speaks they spray small droplets from their nose or mouth which may contain the virus, the WHO said.
David said he has yet to read research recommending less than one meter of physical distancing.
Inconsistent distancing rules in mass transport and other public areas may spawn confusion, David said. It will also be harder to estimate a distance of 0.75 meter compared to 1 meter, which is about an arm’s length, he said.
Business and professional groups, on the other hand, said they support the reduction in physical distancing on public utility vehicles.
The groups, led by the Management Association of the Philippines, said, however, that the move should be done at the proper pace and with caution.
“We recognize that most Filipinos still need to move around to reach their workplaces, meet essential daily needs, and provide assistance to the vulnerable sectors. Limiting public transportation encourages more crowding and longer queuing, which leads to further exposure to the virus. People should practice physical distancing where appropriate but be given alternative options to relax this requirement where the risks are manageable,” the groups said in a statement.
The groups said the safe and gradual increase in public transport capacity is a critical step towards achieving the long-term objective of building a revitalized and more resilient Philippines.
“To restart the economy safely, there is a need to immediately focus on rebuilding national confidence through vigilance, discipline, and education through the 5T’s Plan, of which transportation is at present the key bottleneck,” the groups said.
Business groups asked the government to increase public transportation by allowing more modes of transport on the road and increase vehicle capacity utilization safely, to ensure that more Filipinos can go back to work.