On Tuesday, the Minister of Public Health Anutin Charnvirakul made it clear that no vaccine firm will deal with either local authorities or business interests in Thailand on the direct procurement of vaccines. It represents an abrupt change of policy and comes when a determined push was being made by the Phuket Tourist Association to have 70% of the island’s population inoculated in time to reopen for business from October 1st next.
The Thai government, through the Ministry of the Interior, moved this week to halt a range of initiatives by local groups to organise vaccination campaigns notably foreign tourism operators in Phuket whose plan was gaining momentum and at an advanced stage. The order gives the government exclusive rights to import Covid-19 vaccines and control their distribution in the country as a matter of national importance and public health in the current emergency.
Business leaders in Phuket are less than happy after the Ministry of the Interior moved this week to make it clear that, for now, only the government can import Covid-19 vaccines into the kingdom as it works to finalise the country’s vaccination drive due to commence within the next month but in terms of critical mass, by June this year.
The order, signed by the Interior Ministry, makes it clear that both private groups and local authorities who many had been liaising with, are prohibited from sourcing or procuring vaccines and importing them into Thailand at this critical time.
Phuket provincial leader still says his authority can work with the government in Bangkok to prioritise the tourist island for rapid vaccination
On Wednesday, the President of the Phuket Provincial Administration Organisation, Rewat Areerob, accepted that the move had scotched its plans to inoculate 70% of the population over the coming months to allow the provincial foreign tourist magnet to reopen for business by October 1st.
‘It will definitely impact our plans,’ he said but revealed the business people on the island are still determined to pursue the vaccination drive even through the Ministry of Public Health. ‘We now have to wait for the central government to allocate the vaccines to us, but I have submitted a letter asking the health ministry to reserve more vaccine quota for us since we are a tourism province. We made a lot of money for the nation.’
Move impacts the private sector including hospitals whose vaccine import plans were at an advanced stage
The action by the Interior Ministry, this week, also put paid to ongoing plans by private sector hospitals to purchase vaccines directly from suppliers abroad.
Many hospital groups had been in advanced negotiations to bring this about so they could offer their own vaccine services.
Public health officials have a duty of care
It specifically reserves the right to import or hold vaccines exclusively to the central government and its approved agencies at this time of emergency.
The order explains the government has a duty to control the distribution of these vaccines because of their nature. These are medical products given swift approval on an emergency basis because of the urgency of the pandemic.
Thus, the government must make sure they are targeted properly and the clinical reaction of each member of the public is monitored carefully by the state’s health officials as a public duty of care.
Minister of Public Health Anutin does an about-turn but was adamant this week where things stood
The move is a volte-face on previous government statements by Minister of Public Health Anutin Charnvirakul and even a statement last week by Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha who said the private sector could import vaccine doses if approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
However, on Tuesday, Minster Anutin appeared fully onboard with the new order.
‘They can’t buy it. The suppliers won’t sell it either,’ he said. ‘Vaccines that were approved for emergency use can only be sold to the government.’
Plans by Phuket Tourist Association is now shelved
It is understood that the Phuket Tourist Association in its ambitious plan outlined last week by its President Bhummikitti Ruktaengam, had been in discussion with a view to importing the Sinovac vaccine produced in China.
The gung ho foreign tourism leader sounded determined that his organisation would see the plan through.
‘We can’t wait any longer. If we have to wait, we won’t survive,’ he said. ‘If we miss this winter peak season, we’d have to wait another year.’
That plan is now shelved as long as this order is in force. The disappointment in Phuket is deeply felt.
Business groups in Phuket highlight the economic malaise on an island that cannot afford to remain closed indefinitely to foreign tourism
Both the Phuket Chamber of Commerce and the Phuket chapter of the Federation of Thai Industries have written to the government in Bangkok.
In the letter, they briefed officials in the capital on the precarious economic situation on the island province where at least 100 more hotel jobs were lost in recent days.
A survey by Prince of Songkla University has just shown that the monthly average income for those not working in Phuket has fallen to just ฿1,984 per month, well below the kingdom’s meagre ฿3,000 poverty threshold.
Hospital group boss expressed his frustration
The decision has also met with some angst from the private medical health sector.
Boon Vanasin of the Thonburi Healthcare Group is reported to be frustrated by the government’s emergency order.
‘I don’t understand why the government prevents us from buying our own vaccines,’ he said. ‘I was relieved when the Prime Minister said earlier that he wouldn’t block the private sector from importing vaccines, but then the health minister said yesterday that it would no longer be possible.’
Sinovac is on the way from China
This week, it was revealed that the Chinese vaccine Sinovac had been approved by authorities in Beijing. It is thought that this may help expedite approval by the Food and Drug Administration for its use in Thailand.
In the last 48 hours, the government has indicated that 2 million doses of the Sinovac vaccine will be delivered as planned with 200,000 expected at the end of this month and the balance by the end of April.