Philippines extends lockdown in capital beyond 11 weeks

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gestures during his fourth State of the Nation Address at the Philippine Congress in Quezon City

By Martin Petty and Neil Jerome Morales

MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines on Tuesday announced an extension of a lockdown of its capital, Manila, to 11 weeks, stretching one of the world's strictest and longest community quarantines to June to try to contain coronavirus outbreaks.

That would buck a global trend of easing lockdowns as countries try to strike a balance between containment and restoring some normalcy to limit economic damage.

President Rodrigo Duterte mentioned an extension in "some areas" on Tuesday and his spokesman Harry Roque later confirmed the timeframe and retention of lockdown in the biggest cities, Manila and Cebu.

That means Manila, which accounts for two-thirds of the country's infections and 72% of deaths, will be under lockdown for 11 weeks, or 80 days, longer than the 76-day quarantine in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the global epicentre of the virus.

"The lockdown had a big impact on COVID cases but it also impacted the economy," Roque said in a briefing. "Government resources are limited, so we have to generate resources for the long-term fight against COVID. In the future, if without economic interventions, the result would be more harmful than the effects of COVID."

Restrictions will be eased across most of the country in areas deemed lower-risk, and some essential economic activities will be permitted in the capital, Roque said, in a bid to restart an economy racing towards recession due to a sharp drop in domestic consumption, the main driver.

That has slammed the brakes on two decades of uninterrupted growth in the first quarter, which shrank to 0.2% compared with a year earlier, far short of economists' forecasts of a 3.1% expansion.

The Philippines has recorded more than 11,000 coronavirus infections and 726 deaths, but tested only 158,000 people so far - many fewer than other countries - making it tricky to gauge the full extent of the spread.

Duterte had warned the public against complacency and said the wearing of masks was "a must-comply".

"Remember that the easing up of the restrictions, this is not to say COVID is no more," he said. "We cannot afford a second or third wave to happen."

Manila's lockdown has since mid-March mandated home quarantine, social distancing, curbs on transport, immigration and outdoor exercise, and limits movement to workers in essential sectors and one adult per household for visits to supermarkets, pharmacies or clinics.

The Philippines was one of the first countries to ban flights to and from China after three Chinese visitors tested positive, and it was the third country after China and Italy to order home quarantine, even though it had only a fraction of the cases reported elsewhere.

That move aimed to keep its under-resourced health sector from being overwhelmed.

(Additional reporting by Karen Lema. Editing by Gerry Doyle)