Manila returning to lockdown as Philippines virus cases surge

Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte has agreed to place the capital and outlying provinces back under lockdown after medical groups warned that the country is waging “a losing battle” against the coronavirus amid an alarming surge in infections.

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said on Monday that metropolitan Manila, the capital region of more than 12 million people, and five densely populated provinces will revert to stricter quarantine restrictions for two weeks starting from Tuesday.

The move, which finance and economic officials oppose, will again prohibit non-essential travel outside homes.

Mr Duterte relaxed the country’s lockdown on June 1 in a bid to restart the stagnant economy.

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>A health worker walks in between tents in a car park that has been converted into an extension of the Gat Andres Bonifacio Memorial Medical Centre in Manila (Aaron Favila/AP)</figcaption>
A health worker walks in between tents in a car park that has been converted into an extension of the Gat Andres Bonifacio Memorial Medical Centre in Manila (Aaron Favila/AP)

Under the new restrictions, police checkpoints will return to ensure only authorised people, including medical personnel and workers in vital companies, venture out of their homes, Interior Secretary Eduardo Ano said.

Other businesses previously allowed to partly reopen, including barbershops, internet cafes, gyms, dine-in restaurants, massage and tattoo shops, drive-in cinemas and tourist destinations, will again be closed.

Authorised companies, including banks, health and food processing firms, can operate partly but need to shuttle their employees from home and work. Workers can travel by bike, motorcycles and private cars, but mass transit will be closed.

Businesses in the capital and outlying regions comprise about 67% of the national economy and the Duterte administration has walked a tightrope between public health and economic revival.

The economy contracted slightly in the first quarter but is likely to face a deep recession from the massive business closures that started when Mr Duterte declared a strict lockdown in mid-March.

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>Health workers take a break from carrying out Covid-19 tests in Manila amid a surge in infections (Aaron Favila/AP)(</figcaption>
Health workers take a break from carrying out Covid-19 tests in Manila amid a surge in infections (Aaron Favila/AP)(

Leaders of nearly 100 medical organisations held a rare online news conference on Saturday and warned that the health system has been overwhelmed by infection spikes and may collapse as health workers fall ill or resign from exhaustion and fear.

They asked the president to reimpose a tight lockdown in the capital to allow the government to give health workers “a time out” and allow the government to recalibrate its response to the pandemic.

“We are waging a losing battle against Covid-19 and we need to draw up a consolidated, definitive plan of action,” the groups said in a letter to Mr Duterte which they read publicly.

They expressed fears to the president that the Philippines coronavirus crisis may worsen as it has in the United States.

The Department of Health reported a record-high daily tally of 5,032 confirmed coronavirus cases on Sunday, taking the country’s total to 103,185, including more than 2,000 deaths.

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>(PA Graphics)</figcaption>
(PA Graphics)

The Philippines has the second-highest number of confirmed cases in Southeast Asia after Indonesia, and has had more reported infections than China, where the pandemic began late last year.

While he granted the demand, Mr Duterte appeared irritated after the medical groups went public with critical remarks, saying they could have talked to him first.

“If you will stage a revolution, you will give me the free ticket to stage a counter-revolution. How I wish you would do it,” he said in televised remarks on Sunday night.

“You yourself don’t have any solution. What are you babbling about?”

He floated the idea of tapping civilian reservists to be placed under military control, including his daughter, who is a city mayor, and police nurses and medics, if exhausted doctors and nurses leave their anti-pandemic work.

In other developments in the Asia-Pacific region:

— An outbreak in China’s far north-western region of Xinjiang is continuing to subside, with 28 new cases reported on Monday. The outbreak of 590 cases so far has been concentrated in the capital, Urumqi, where authorities have conducted mass testing, cut public transport, isolated some communities and restricted travel.

— While mainland China’s latest outbreak appears to have peaked, authorities in the semi-autonomous Chinese city of Hong Kong are struggling to contain infections, with more than 200 added over the weekend.

— South Korea has confirmed 23 additional cases of the coronavirus, amid a downward trend in the number of locally infected patients.