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Gov’t eyes charges vs 8 travelers from South Africa

MANILA, Philippines — Authorities will take legal action against eight travelers from South Africa if it is proven that they provided authorities with incorrect or incomplete information on documents used for contact tracing.

“If they are caught, they will be charged because they should not provide incorrect information,” Health Secretary Francisco Duque III, chair of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases, said in an interview over dzBB on Wednesday.

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He noted that giving incorrect information affected the government’s contact-tracing efforts.

“Like now, we want to conduct back-tracing, but we are having difficulties because we don’t know where to look for them. We are still investigating this,” Duque said.

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“We have a law that says that all information you will give must be true and correct, otherwise, you can be charged especially now that we are under a public health emergency,” Duque added.

He was referring to Republic Act No. 11332, which mandated the reporting of contagious diseases. The law prohibits the tampering or falsification of information and refusal to cooperate with authorities by an individual with a contagious disease.

The eight returning overseas Filipinos (ROFs) were among 253 travelers who arrived in the country from South Africa from Nov. 15 to 29, shortly before the Philippine government imposed a travel ban on South Africa following the World Health Organization’s declaration of the Omicron strain as a variant of concern.Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire on Wednesday said that of the eight, one has already been traced.

“The located ROF is currently in home quarantine, with a negative RT-PCR test, and no symptoms,” Vergeire said in a message to reporters.

Authorities have yet to trace the whereabouts of the seven others, she said.

According to Vergeire, three of them provided their agency number, one provided an incorrect number, one an incomplete number and two others were unaccounted for.

“We are continuously getting in touch with our local government units and other partners to be able to contact these individuals,” Vergeire said.

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Penalties

Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles, acting presidential spokesperson, also warned on Wednesday that passengers arriving from abroad who provide incorrect information and make it hard for health authorities to track them down face criminal charges.

“It’s [in the] Notifiable Diseases Act, the penalties are there for anyone who give false information especially during a public health emergency like this ongoing COVID-19 pandemic,” Nograles said in an interview with CNN Philippines.

The law penalizes noncooperation with a fine ranging from P20,000 to P50,000, imprisonment of one to six months, or both, if the court so decides. Nograles said he would leave it up to law enforcement agencies and the prosecutors to investigate if a violation of the law has been committed.

“The penalties won’t be imposed immediately. We will investigate first. They (police) will have to ask them (passengers) questions,” he said.

He said filing charges would be a last resort as the government did not want to scare the passengers.

“Whoever you are, please come immediately and report yourselves, submit yourselves for testing immediately and report yourselves immediately to authorities. We’re not scaring you; we want your cooperation,” he said.

As part of government efforts to deter, if not delay, the entry of Omicron, the Department of Health’s Bureau of Quarantine (BOQ) has asked passengers to report to health authorities so that they could be checked if they have COVID-19 symptoms or undergo tests to make sure they were not infected.

At the televised Laging Handa public briefing, BOQ Director Roberto Salvador Jr. said the agency has asked the help of the Department of the Interior and Local Government and the Philippine National Police in locating the remaining passengers from South Africa.

“There’s really a need for them to be contacted to make sure that they did not experience any [COVID-19] symptoms when they were on home quarantine,” he said.

Salvador said all passengers were cleared by the BOQ upon arrival but several were not able to provide mobile phone numbers — the fastest way they could have been contacted — because they did not have Philippine mobile phone numbers.

Many of the ROFs placed the contact numbers of their manning agencies. He said the returning passengers were contacted through the addresses they provided. All passengers who have been contacted so far did not show any symptoms and have tested negative for COVID-19, Salvador disclosed.

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TAGS: COVID-19 Omicron variant, DoH, Francisco Duque III, travelers from South Africa
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