Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, September 15) — Lawmakers on Tuesday grilled officials of the Department of Transportation (DOTr) over the directive on gradually easing physical distancing in mass transit, noting that a huge chunk of displaced drivers are still waiting to get back on the road.
During the DOTr budget hearing before the House Committee on Appropriations, minority lawmakers raised the issue of jeepney drivers seeking to ply their routes, along with commuters who are still stranded due to limited public utility vehicles, a day after the agency started to relax the one-meter distancing in public transport units.
“There are still around 1.7 million stranded workers…nagde-debate pa ho tayo whether it is wise to reduce social distance protocol,” Marikina Rep. Stella Quimbo told transportation officials. “Hayaan na lang natin ang health experts to debate on that.”
[Translation: There are still around 1.7 million stranded workers, and yet we are still debating whether it is wise to reduce social distance protocol. Let’s leave the health experts to debate on that.]
“Ang simpleng solusyon para tugunan [ang shortage] is to increase ang number ng namamasada (The simplest solution to address the shortage of vehicles is to increase the number of drivers),” Quimbo added.
Bayan Muna Rep. Ferdinand Gaite and Ang Probinsyano Partylist Rep. Ronnie Ong echoed similar sentiments, noting that there are measures that would ensure the safety of commuters anyway.
According to Martin Delgra, chief of the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board, out of the 41,986 traditional jeepneys in Metro Manila, around 18,000 units have been deployed to date.
“Ongoing po yung pag-a-assess in so far as having to put them on the road,” he said. “Ang pagde-deploy po natin ay immediate, urgent, short term, in so far as the need for public transport is concerned.”
[Translation: Our assessment is still ongoing in so far as having to put them on the road. Our process of deployement is immediate, urgent, short term, in so far as the need for public transport is concerned.]
Ako Bicol Partylist Rep. Alfredo Garbin noted that if there would be no way to dissuade the DOTr from implementing its new distancing rules, they should consider expanding contactless fare payments for all modes of public transport, require sanitizing stations in terminals, and other health safety protocols to reduce infections.
Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade admitted during the hearing that while relaxed distancing is not a concrete solution, the department had to come up with ways to further open the economy.
He also claimed the decision was not made out of mere “knee-jerk reaction,” but after actual research and actual consultations with medical experts, including those from the Philippine Medical Association.
“Ito ba ay kongkretong solusyon? Tugade stated. “Hindi ho. Marami pang dapat gawin (Is this a concrete solution? No. There’s still a lot to be done).”
“Health and safety is not prejudiced, provided that you use face masks, wash hands, no eating, no use of cellphones, no entry of asymptomatics and senior citizens,” he said.
Tugade also maintained that relaxing distance rules does not necessarily mean cramming passengers inside vehicles.
“Hindi ibig sabihin niyan magsisiksikan na ang mga tao,” he explained. “Sa jeepney o bus, isa hanggang apat lang ang idadagdag na pasahero. Sa mga tren, 40 to 60 depende sa configuration.”
[Translation: This does not mean that we can cram people inside. For jeepneys or buses, one to four passengers can be added. For trains, 40 to 60 depending on configuration.]
The DOTr earlier announced that the required space in public transportation had to be reduced to 0.75 meter, as already observed since Monday. On Sept. 28, this will be further reduced to 0.5 meter, then to 0.3 meter starting Oct. 12.
The government previously maintained that distancing can be modified since face masks and face shields are worn, despite the advisory of the World Health Organization to keep it to at least one meter.