The Philippines is keeping current quarantine curbs in its capital till the end of February, as it focuses on ramping up vaccinations to move closer to a “new normal” that will see the further easing of restrictions.

Metro Manila – an urban sprawl of 16 cities and home to over 13 million people – will remain under alert level 2, the second least restrictive in a scale of 1 to 4. Most of the country is also now under level 2.

This follows a recommendation by Metro Manila’s mayors that fall in line with advice from medical experts who say it is too soon to raise the alert to level 1.

Under level 1, most businesses will be allowed to operate at full capacity, including restaurants, cafes, bars, hotels, salons and other service firms.

Churches will also be allowed to fill up their pews, and thousands of schools can resume in-person classes.

Offices may start to see the return of staff after two years of working from home.

“While the [data is] truly encouraging and manifest an improving Covid-19 situation in [Metro Manila], there is an urgent need to further await an improvement in the risk classifications of the 12 [local government units] presently under moderate risk classification,” the mayors said in a statement on February 14.

They said level 2 should be maintained to preserve health and the economic gains of recent weeks.

The health ministry recorded fewer than 5,000 new cases across the nation for a sixth straight day on February 14. This was sharply down from up to 40,000 at the height of a surge fuelled by the less deadly but highly transmissible Omicron variant just a month ago.

Infections in Metro Manila have plunged to fewer than 500 from as high as 11,000 last month.

The ministry reported 2,730 new cases on February 14, the lowest it has been so far this year.

The Philippines last week reopened its borders to all tourists who have received two doses of a Covid-19 vaccine and recorded a negative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test result prior to arrival in Manila.

The health ministry has said it wants to see 70 per cent of the Philippines’ total population of some 110 million fully vaccinated with two doses first before it will recommend easing rules to alert level 1, which it has said will be the “new normal”.

The national vaccination rate now is at 55 per cent.

Metro Manila’s rate is already at over 68 per cent, but a senior health official said the government wants the percentage of the population infected brought down to seven for every 100,000, from the current 10.5.

Philippine Medical Association president Benito Atienza said vaccination among senior citizens, immunocompromised people, and children aged five to 11 needed to be ramped up.

Dr Rajendra Yadav, acting Philippine representative of the World Health Organisation, agreed that “the worst is over for now” for the Philippines.

“But that’s only for now, because we do not know how long this current favourable situation will last. We need to hope for the best but remain prepared for the worst,” he said.