Philippines shuts churches, curbs travel as virus surges

Churches in Manila will be closed, eating inside restaurants banned and leisure travel outside the Philippine capital curbed under new coronavirus rules unveiled Sunday as the country battles a resurgence in infections.

The number of new cases has exceeded 7,000 for three days in a row — the highest since the start of the pandemic — taking the country’s caseload to more than 663,000 and straining hospitals.

Around half of the active cases are in Metro Manila where many of the 12 million inhabitants live in poor and overcrowded neighbourhoods.

“We have two goals: to reduce the transmission of the virus in Metro Manila and avoid the spread of the virus, especially of the new variants, outside Metro Manila because we know these are more transmissible,” presidential spokesman Harry Roque said.

The new rules will be in place for two weeks from Monday and also apply to the surrounding provinces of Rizal, Cavite, Laguna and Bulacan.

Public transport will continue to operate and workers allowed to commute as the government stops short of imposing another devastating lockdown in the country’s economic heartland.

But non-essential trips in and out of the targeted region are prohibited — a blow to already struggling tourism operators looking forward to the Easter holidays when many Filipinos flock to the country’s beaches and mountains.

“We know that some of you have plans and you are looking forward to this Holy Week break, but if we allow unimpeded travel right now, the new variants of the virus will spread faster in different parts of the Philippines,” Roque said.

Independent research group OCTA on Saturday called for “drastic and immediate action” to slow the spread of the virus.

Its current modelling shows hospital beds, including intensive care, in the capital will be full by the first week of April.

In recent weeks, targeted lockdowns, strict night-time curfews, a stay-at-home order for all children and a ban on foreigners entering the country have been introduced — but infections continue to rise.

The spike has been blamed on poor compliance with health protocols and the more contagious strains that are taking hold.

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