The Philippines has begun an ambitious campaign to vaccinate nine million people against COVID-19 over three days, as it temporarily suspended a decision to allow fully vaccinated tourists into the country after the emergence of the Omicron variant.
The immunisation campaign was scaled back from an earlier target of 15 million shots, but would still be a record in a country where vaccine hesitancy remains an obstacle and there are logistical hurdles to reach people in the sprawling archipelago.
Three million vaccinations per day is nearly four times the average of 829,000 daily shots in November.
An official said news of the Omicron variant made the campaign even more vital.
“It is better to be prepared for the effects of Omicron,” Carlito Galvez, the country’s vaccination chief, told CNN Philippines on Monday.
The spread of Omicron, which the World Health Organization has described as a “variant of concern”, has sparked global travel restrictions.
Manila announced plans last week to allow fully vaccinated tourists from most countries to enter from December 1, but the government’s COVID-19 task force reversed course over the weekend as it announced the suspension of flights from seven European countries, in addition to an earlier ban on arrivals from several African nations.
“The IATF deemed it necessary to suspend the entry of foreign tourists, given worldwide concerns over the Omicron variant,” Bureau of Immigration Commissioner Jaime Morente said on Monday, using the acronym for the task force.
The Philippines has faced one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in Asia and has been slower than many of its neighbours in immunising its people. About 35.6 million people have been fully vaccinated, or a third of its 110 million population.
The country aims to immunise 54 million people by the end of 2021, and 77 million by next March.
Although new cases have fallen sharply to an average of 1,679 a day in November from a peak of more than 18,000 a day in September, vaccination rates remain uneven.
According to government data, while 93 percent of the capital region’s residents were fully inoculated as of mid-November, only 10.9 percent of people in the predominantly Muslim regions in the southern Philippines were.
The government says it will deploy 160,000 volunteers in 11,000 vaccination sites nationwide for the three-day campaign.