By Daniel Llanto

The Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) on emerging infectious pandemic is deep in discussion on preventing the entry to the Philippines of the new more contagious variant of coronavirus variant reportedly from the United Kingdom. 

Chief in the agenda of IATF, Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said, is whether to impose a travel ban to and from UK. In the meantime, Roque said the government hopes that certain health protocols in place to test and quarantine arrivals would curb transmission.

Several European nations have imposed travel bans on UK after it reported a highly contagious new coronavirus strain. Among the countries that barred flights from the UK are France, Germany, Italy, and Ireland.  

UK earlier tightened restrictions, imposing strict stay-at-home rule for Britons, after warning about the new Covid variant that can spread more quickly than the original strain. 

Pag-uusapan pa po iyan at IATF,” Roque said during an online press conference when asked about the government’s steps to block the entry of the new Covid strain.

Pero sa ngayon po, in place pa naman iyong ating mga protocols para sa lahat ng pumapasok ng Pilipinas kasama po iyan iyong mandatory quarantine habang hinihintay po ang resulta ng kanilang PCR tests,” he said.

It will be recalled that government took its time imposing a travel ban on China when news of the virus broke out in March, such that President Duterte came under fire for failing to take fast, resolute action. 

Protocols on the entry of people inoculated with COVID-19 vaccines will also be tackled by the IATF, according to Roque.

Pag-aaralan pa po iyan ng IATF. So, pag-aaralan at pag-uusapan at magkakaroon po tayo ng guidelines,” he said.

Duterte met with some IATF members December 20 and delivered a public address afterwards.

The government task force recently allowed the re-entry to the country of foreigners with visas who will leave the Philippines starting December 17. These foreigners seeking to re-enter the country however must have a valid and existing visa on the date of the arrival, pre-booked quarantine facility, and pre-booked COVID-19 testing. They are also subject to the maximum capacity of inbound passengers at the port and date of entry.

The Bureau of Immigration has been tasked to issue the guidelines for the implementation of the new IATF directive including the necessary coordination with the airlines.

The government has relaxed quarantine restrictions to revitalize the economy but has appealed to the public to continue to observe health protocols to avoid a post-holiday surge of infections.

There is no new strain of coronavirus in the Philippines, the Department of Health said on Monday as UK confirmed that a new fast-spreading coronavirus has appeared in Britain, prompting heightened restrictions and travel bans.  

“According to the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine, right now, they have not seen a new strain in the country based on their monitoring,” Health Undersec. Maria Rosario Vergeire said in a briefing.

“But of course, we will be furthering this monitoring. We might need to strengthen our measures in the event there is a new strain in the country. But right now, there is none,” she added.

Initial data suggest the new coronavirus strain could be “up to 70 percent more transmissible,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said as he ordered new restrictions for London and southeastern England until December 30.

The announcement prompted several nations to ban flights and trains arriving to and from UK.

Vergeire said there is no need to enforce stricter travel restrictions for now.

“Although of course, we’re strengthening our measures to prevent the infection from reaching the country,” she said, referring to testing at ports of entry and quarantine of travelers.

Filipinos have been advised to remain vigilant and continue observing health protocols as the country braces for a surge in COVID-19 cases during the holiday season.