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GOVERNMENT officials on Thursday continued to argue whether tighter quarantine restrictions should be imposed in the National Capital Region (NCR) to head off a surge even as more cases of the highly contagious Delta variant were discovered.

The debate continued even as 97 new cases of the Delta variant were detected in the country on Thursday, pushing the total to 216.

The Department of Health (DoH) said 88 of the 97 Delta variant cases were from local transmission and six were from returning overseas Filipinos.

Two of the returning Filipinos were seamen from the M/T Clyde and the barge Claudia currently moored off Albay province, while the rest were from the M/V Vega ship that arrived from Indonesia.

Thirty-two of the local cases were from Central Visayas, 25 from NCR (Metro Manila), 10 from Eastern Visayas, six each from Central Luzon and Calabarzon (Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal and Quezon), three from the Western Visayas and one from Ilocos Region.

The DoH said 94 of those who had Delta variant have recovered, while three died, pushing the fatalities from the variant to eight.

'Hard lockdown not justified'

President Rodrigo Duterte approved the recommendation of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) to keep the NCR Plus in general community quarantine (GCQ) with heightened restrictions until August 15.

The DoH admitted that Covid cases in Metro Manila are rising, but it does not mean the region is experiencing a surge that will justify a hard lockdown.

The independent OCTA Research group believes Metro Manila is on the verge of a surge and recommended a two-week "circuit breaker" lockdown to prevent an explosion of cases which could lead to "thousands" of deaths.

On Thursday, Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire told reporters the DoH's definition of a "surge" considers not only case numbers but other factors as well, including health system capacity.

Vergeire said to consider the rise in cases in NCR as a surge will unnecessarily alarm the public.

As far as OCTA founder Professor Ranjit Rye is concerned, the NCR is already on the onset of a surge, and that tightening measures early is "the right thing to do."

"The key now is for the LGUs (local government units), communities and the private sector in the NCR to work together to implement strategies to prevent the surge in cases from accelerating further," Rye said.

The mayors in Metro Manila also want stricter quarantine measures and requested for at least 4 million more vaccine doses to protect the people from a possible Delta-driven surge.

Metro Manila mayors willing

In a briefing on Thursday, Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) Chairman Benjamin Abalos Jr. said the mayors are willing to have a two-week enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) as long the national government has the funds to prop up underprivileged families that will be affected.

If an ECQ is not feasible, the mayors will propose more restrictions added to the existing GCQ with heightened restrictions, Abalos said.

Among these restrictions are reducing seating capacity in restaurants or allowing only take-out orders and controlling mobility.

Abalos said the suggestions are based on the mayors' assessment that Covid-19 cases are increasing, and that one area in Metro Manila recently reported a 56-percent rise in the positivity rate.

"Aggressive contact tracing, massive testing, and strict isolation would then be ramped up to further reduce Covid-19 cases in Metro Manila while waiting for the requested 4 million vaccines from the national government to achieve population protection as early as possible and prevent exponential growth of positive cases from Delta variant," he said.

Economic disaster

Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez is against a hard lockdown, saying 1.8 million workers could suffer.

"I mentioned before - the economy cannot bear another massive lockdown, unless the situation really calls for it. We lose P30 billion in wages for two-week lockdown. The loss of jobs will worsen the hunger situation. More MSMEs (micro, small and medium enterprises) will close down," said Lopez in a Viber message to reporters.

"Covid cases are still within manageable levels. Delta has been detected but so far being monitored and contained. It is being closely watched," he added.

He said his department has a "more holistic assessment" of the Covid situation in Metro Manila. "As long as we have an intensified vaccination rollout plus strict public health standard and granular lockdown, we keep the economy going and save jobs and livelihood. What is key is we allow the economy to reopen in a safe and very calibrated way, but we make more restrictions on nonessential activities and mass gatherings and definitely no superspreader activities," Lopez said.

Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI) acting President Edgardo Lacson said a knee-jerk reaction to declare a lockdown will be disastrous to the economy, which is already reeling from losses arising from months of lockdowns.

"Such a decision will cause the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs again, not to mention business losses of enterprises, which our citizens can ill afford," Lacson said.

The government should focus instead on intensifying vaccination, he said.

The Philippines reported 5,735 new Covid-19 cases on Thursday, for a total of 1.572 million.

WITH ZSASTEE VILLANUEVA AND ANNA LEAH E. GONZALES