(UPDATE) President Rodrigo Duterte on Saturday mobilized the government against a new variant of the virus that causes COVID-19, adding that a fresh lockdown is a "possibility" should there be a "severity" in cases.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the Inter-Agency Task Force on COVID-19 should set a threshold of new cases that would automatically trigger tighter restrictions. Interior Secretary Eduardo Año said current cases are "manageable," adding, "Right now there is no necessity to call a lockdown."
Sec. Carlito Galvez, the Philippines' COVID-19 vaccine czar, said surveillance of foreign arrivals would be intensified. Transportation Sec. Arthur Tugade said monitoring should be expanded to all countries with the new strain, not just the UK where it was first reported.
"Yung lockdown is a possibility, I am making a projection. If there is a severity in numbers, it would demand we take corrective measures immediately, then we would just go back to a lockdown," Duterte said.
"Kapag marami na and we do not have the antidote, how to kill those variants, we're having a problem there," he said.
A ban on arrivals from the UK, originally set to last until Dec. 31, was extneded for two weeks.
New variant detected in Sabah, near Sulu
Duterte on Saturday alerted authorities to reports that the new coronavirus variant has been detected in Sabah, administered by Malaysia, as authorities moved to guard against its entry to the Philippines.
Sabah is accessible by boat from Sulu, on the Philippines southwestern tip. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said he favored the establishment of a blockade in the area, where authorities for decades have also guarded against the entry of extremists and contraband goods.
Duterte called a special cabinet meeting on Saturday in response to growing concern around the world over the new variant of the virus that causes COVID-19. It was first reported in the UK and has been detected in Singapore.
The President said he was concerned over reports that the new strain could spread at a faster rate. "We have to increase the surveilance and of course itong quarantine ng Pilipino na umuwi."
"I hope it will not reach the shores of the Philippines, itong variant na yan," he said.
Health Sec. Francisco Duque said responded to the President: "We are not defenseless. Kung makakapasok siya Mr. President, please be assured that the systems, the mechanisms, the policies are all in place."
Sec. Carlito Galvez, the chief implementer of the country's COVID response, said surveillance in the country's entry points would be intensified. Air passengers who arrived from the UK before the 12:01 a.m. Dec. 24 cut-off were isolated, he said.
Duterte asked Galvez: "Are we going to impose another lockdown until we find out what we can do?"
The Philippines can avoid a mutation of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, by keeping infections low, Duque said. On Saturday, the Philippines confirmed 1,406 new cases, bringing the total to 469,005, of which, 28,883 are active.
Duterte said the counter-measures remain the same: hand-washing, observance of cough etiquette, wearing of face masks and face shields, observing at least one-meter physicial distancing and proper ventilation.
"Kinikilalang epektibo ito sa kahit anong mutation o variant ng virus na ito," he said.