A GROUP of medical experts backed the government's new policy reducing physical distancing requirements in public transportation units, saying increasing public transport capacity will build back the country's economy.

The medical experts that include two former secretaries of the Department of Health (DOH) -- Dr. Manuel M. Dayrit and Dr. Esperanza Cabral -- said that based on their review of the scientific literature and the policies and experiences of neighboring countries, physical distancing can be maintained below one meter, so long as what they call as the "seven commandments" are strictly implemented.

The seven commandments for public transportation, according to the group, are the following:

1. Wearing of proper face masks

2. Wearing of face shields

3. No talking and no eating

4. Adequate ventilation

5. Frequent and proper disinfection

6. No symptomatic passengers

7. Appropriate physical distancing

The group said the combination of such measures "will be among the most comprehensive in the world, based on our consultation with international experts."

"These 7 Commandments need to be strictly enforced and independently monitored in their implementation. By imposing these strict measures, we believe we can gradually relax social distancing rules, in order to double or even triple our current public transport capacity, without compromising public health," the group said in a statement released Tuesday, September 15.

The statement was signed by Dayrit and Cabral, along with Dr. Vicente Belizario Jr., dean of UP Manila College of Public Health; Dr. Teodoro Herbosa, special advisor of the National Task Force against Covid-19 and former DOH undersecretary; Dr. Michael Hernandez, department chair of UP Manila Environmental and Occupational Health; Dr. Manuel Francisco T. Roxas, director of Philippine College of Surgeons Cancer Commission; Dr. Ma. Dominga Padilla, founder and CEO of Eye Bank Foundation of the Philippines; and Dr. Rontgene Solante, infectious disease specialist.

They said they outlined the above mentioned measures to the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) on Monday, September 14, as part of their set of recommendations to aid the country in reviving the economy while adhering to comprehensive public health standards.

"We cannot build back the economy without increasing public transport capacity, which has been operating at only 20-30 percent of pre-pandemic levels due to understandable fears of outbreaks arising from congested public transport spaces," the group said.

With regards to appropriate physical distancing, the group proposed the gradual reduction of the physical distancing norm during transit to 0.5 meters or lower.

The Department of Transportation announced earlier that starting September 14, the physical distance between passengers inside public transport units will be reduced to 0.75 or 3/4 meter from the current one meter recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO).

This will be reduced further to 0.5 (or 1/2) meter after two weeks and further to 0.3 (or 1/3) meter after another two weeks.

READ: IATF cuts required physical distance between passengers

"While WHO recommends keeping a distance of one meter from other passengers to the extent possible, it allows for adjustments based on context. Given our other recommended health interventions, we propose the gradual reduction of the physical distancing norm during transit to 0.5 meters or lower," said the medical experts.

"To be clear, there are many more layers to our proposal and the studies we are reviewing. Public policy has no quick-and-easy solutions, and addressing the transport crisis in this pandemic is no exception. Where possible, we would like to engage in further dialogue with the IATF, medical and transportation experts, and other stakeholders, about our proposal," the group added.

Dayrit's group also encouraged a discussion of other groups' thoughts on health and other matters, including the overall increase of the supply of safe public transportation such as rail, buses, jeepneys, motorcycle taxis, and Transport Network Vehicle Services, and the use of other options such as cycling, walking, and private shuttles.

They also recommended the "full institutionalization" of private sector expert consultation to further improve our overall management of the economy and public health.

"The comparative toll on Filipinos from a further prolonged recession is much more devastating than the manageable risks entailed in our plan. We believe that there is a way forward that carefully balances a careful reopening of public transport capacity, with public health, while allowing purposeful flexibility to re-adjust measures based on actual and evolving data from the ground," the group said.

The medical experts urged the government to implement properly and enforce the health measures strictly, and for the public to comply with the "seven commandments" to "revitalize our country safely and give Filipinos their lives back."

"Critically, it also requires the education of the public, who must take full responsibility for compliance with the 7 Commandments. This plan's success also rests on continuous monitoring and data-driven evaluation by public health experts," it said. (LMY/SunStar Philippines)