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Philippines shifts to ‘new normal’ with masks only

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People crowd a street filled with stores as they shop in Manila on February 4 after authorities issued relaxation of Covid rules. AFP

Philippines shifts to ‘new normal’ with masks only

The Philippines is shifting to a “new normal” in March, with masks essentially the only restriction left to guard against the spread of the coronavirus.

The government’s task force against Covid-19 announced on Sunday that Metro Manila – an urban sprawl of 16 cities and home to over 13 million – will be under alert level 1 starting on March 1. It is the least restrictive under a four-level system.

The rest of the country will either be under alert level 1 or 2.

Alert level 1 is seen as an “in-between phase”, where the pandemic is no longer treated like a health emergency as it was two years ago, but still not yet at that point where the disease can be considered endemic.

The mask mandate will stay, and only those with proof of vaccination can move about. Health protocols – testing and quarantine – will also remain.

However, the authorities will lift all limits on the use of public space and transportation, as well as seating capacities for all retail, service and leisure businesses.

This means hotels, restaurants, cinemas, gyms, bars and concert halls will be able to operate at full capacity. Limits on conventions, exhibits, indoor gatherings and sports events are likewise being lifted.

Employers may also ask all their employees to return to the office, though they may still opt for flexible and alternative work arrangements.

Church services, including weddings, funerals and masses, will likewise be at full capacity.

There was no announcement yet concerning schools, which have been shut for over two years, though thousands of public schools have already started pilot in-person classes.

Since early last month, the Philippines has been gradually easing its quarantine restrictions, which two years ago were among the most restrictive in the world.

The country has already reopened its borders to all fully vaccinated tourists.

New cases have plunged in recent weeks to around 1,000 a day, from up to 40,000 at the height of an outbreak fuelled by the Omicron variant just a month ago.

Infections in Metro Manila have plunged to less than 300, from as high as 11,000 the previous month.

The positivity rate has slipped below the World Health Organisation’s 5 per cent threshold.

Close to 70 per cent of the Philippines’ population of some 110 million have been fully vaccinated. Less than half of hospital beds are in use.

Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire had said Filipinos would eventually have to “move on and live with the virus”.

THE STRAITS TIMES/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

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