Public health remains the key consideration and key questions have to be addressed such as whether some vaccines are effective in halting transmission of the virus, the effectiveness of schemes planned for vaccine passports and the situation in Thailand regarding the kingdom’s own vaccination programme. It is clear that it will be later in the year before any serious consideration to allowing vaccinated foreigners to enter Thailand without quarantine will be given based on the government’s strict and popular health first policy.
The Tourism Minister, Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn, has assured travel industry leaders that government officials are monitoring the situation with vaccinations being rolled out across the crisis-hit world and was looking at plans to use the vaccination process as a screening or control mechanism to reopen the country to foreign tourists. However, he stressed that, for now, there were still many questions to be answered and that the final decision would be for the Ministry of Public Health and the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration. In the meantime, he was seeking financial assistance for the sector and expressed satisfaction at the success of the Alternative Quarantine Scheme which had shown the public that it can be relied upon as an effective preventative measure with tourists arriving under the Special Tourist Visa.
Evidence being gathered by scientists on the effects of vaccines currently being administered may impact Thailand’s economy this year and in particular, the country’s huge foreign tourism sector, effectively moribund since the kingdom closed its doors to mass tourism in April 2020.
This week, a variety of travel industry groups met with officials at the Tourism Ministry in Bangkok and pressed, among other things, for the government to consider allowing foreign tourists with proof of vaccination, to enter the kingdom without the now mandatory 14-day quarantine requirement in respect of all inbound travellers.
Public Health Ministry officials reviewing the developing situation on vaccination programmes
At the end of the year, Dr Opas Karnkawinpong, the Head of the Department of Disease Control at the Ministry of Public Health, did indicate that the ministry would review this situation but for now, public health remains the overarching priority. This means even those vaccinated in other countries must still conform with the country’s strict and expensive entry criteria including 14 days state quarantine administered through the Alternative Quarantine Scheme
The problem, of course, is that scientists are not yet quite certain of the final outcomes of the various vaccines being administered in respect of both immunity and the ability to halt the transmission of the disease. Added to this is the certainty, at this point, based on clinical trials, that even the biggest vaccines from Pfizer BionNTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca are only guaranteed to be 95% effective.
Some of those vaccinated have become infected
We are already seeing vaccinated people in the United States becoming infected although nearly all of these, at this point, have had only the first dose of the vaccine.
Initial reports suggest that the AstraZeneca vaccine is capable of halting transmission of the virus with less certainty about the Pfizer BioNTech jab which some experts have pointed out was not developed with an objective endpoint to halt transmission of the disease.
On Monday, at the Tourism Ministry, there were plaintive appeals to officials from the Thai Hotels Federation, the Association of Domestic Travel and ATTA, the Association of Thai Travel Agents.
80% of tourism operators are now closed
Vichit Prakobgosol, the President of ATTA, told the meeting which was attended by Tourism and Sports Minister Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn, that at least 30% of companies involved in managing inbound traffic to Thailand have gone to the wall and will never reopen. He told government officials that another 50% had ceased operations temporarily due to the crisis since April last year.
He said that the remaining 20% of firms were hanging on by pivoting to what was left of the domestic tourism market which has also been hard hit by the second wave of infection.
Pleading with the ministry team to push for admission of vaccinated people unimpeded into the kingdom, he outlined just how desperate the situation was for business operators in the sector.
‘Operators have to fight until the last breath to maintain business, at least until the third quarter when there’s hope for a new flow of tourists,’ he declared. ‘If inbound tourism can restart, the country’s economic recovery will get back on track.’
Tourism Minister did not raise false hopes about vaccinated people entering Thailand without quarantine, the situation is under review
Minister Phiphat did not raise false expectations to the business group on this front. He told them that the government must act cautiously and that public health remains its key priority.
He said that experts at the Ministry of Public Health and within the Covid 19 centre are monitoring this situation but much of the analysis must wait until two doses of each vaccine, meaning the fullest extent of inoculation, is compete in countries across the world.
He did confirm, as did Dr Opas in December, that the situation remains under review and the government is open to the prospect based on sound science. Officials were also waiting to see how the situation develops concerning vaccine passports which are being deployed in the next few months by partners within the airline industry as well as certain countries worldwide.
There is a growing acceptance of this proposal among the public in the western world. A small sample survey on US travel news site, The Vacationer, showed that 74% of all Americans surveyed would make use of a vaccine passport.
Poland has become the latest country to issue vaccine passports. In the last few days, deputy Health Minister Anna Goławska has announced that vaccine passports will be issued to all those Poles inoculated while Denmark has announced that it too will roll out similar documents to vaccinated nationals.
Government proposal for financial aid to the sector
In the meantime, the minister told his audience that he was presenting a proposal to the cabinet to seek financial aid for the sector. He also floated the idea of relaxation of quarantine to include areas within hotels and resorts although he underlined that this was subject to the approval by medical health experts and the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration.
He expected that developments on these initiatives would take place in the next few weeks.
Special Tourist Visa visitors entering under quarantine conditions has raised public confidence
Minister Phiphat explained that although worldwide take-up of the Special Tourist visa, which is now open to all countries, has been disappointing, he was satisfied that all tourists arriving under the new dispensation presented no public health threat due to the Alternative Quarantine Scheme.
He emphasised that this will go a long way to reassure the Thai public about future steps to open up the industry.
‘The special tourist visa aiming for long-stay tourists might fail to stimulate tourism,’ Mr Phiphat said. ‘But at least it helped assure locals that foreigners entering the country passed all the required safety regulations, which could ease quarantine rules.’
Proposals to allow vaccinated visitors without quarantine is being carefully weighed up by officials
In the meantime, he also underlined to the travel trade representatives that the Alternative Quarantine Scheme will continue to see visitors entering Thailand in the coming months as the ministry consults with the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration and the Ministry of Public Health on the question of opening up the kingdom to vaccinated tourists on a more convenient basis
He confirmed that this was something being actively considered.
‘The government is working on a measure to prove foreign tourists are vaccinated, such as certifications or passport stamps,’ Minster Phiphat asserted.
Thailand’s vaccination programme will be a key factor in reopening the kingdom’s borders but public health remains the overarching government priority
Thailand will be also rolling out its own vaccination programme which is expected to see those with underlying health conditions vaccinated by June or July if all goes well. This will entail 26 million doses supplied by AstraZeneca.
The mainstream or third stage of the vaccination process is due to take place towards the end of the year involving 35 million AstraZeneca doses.
While this may become a factor as well as Covid-19 vaccine passports in whatever easing of the entry conditions required towards the end of the year to spur on foreign tourism arrivals, focusing on the scrapping of the quarantine requirement for many, there also remains the requirement to have a negative Covid-19 test before leaving for Thailand and on arrival.
Covid-19 passports may well be utilised as a part of the kingdom’s ongoing approach to screening and security.
It is worth noting, however, that Thailand’s government has, from the outset, consistently put the health of the public at the top of its agenda no matter how high the cost and will undoubtedly continue to be cautious.