Recommendation to the government to ease the quarantine requirement from 14 days to 7 days for vaccinated travellers decided on by the National Committee on Communicable Diseases on Monday. Quarantine to be reduced to 10 days for incoming passengers who have not been vaccinated but remains in place for those whose journeys originated in Africa. Proposal puts the government at odds with a statement from World Health Organisation (WHO) Director, Mike Ryan, in Geneva on Tuesday, who said Covid-19 passports should not be used in any way to regulate international travel.
A meeting, on Monday, of a key committee at the Ministry of Public Health chaired by Minister Anutin Charnvirakul agreed to recommend an easing of quarantine requirements for incoming passengers to Thailand. It is understood the proposal is subject to ratification by the government and will become effective in April. However, the move, while it will help the beleaguered foreign tourism industry in the kingdom, is expected to have only a limited impact on foreign tourist arrivals.
A meeting of the National Committee on Communicable Diseases at the Ministry of Public Health, on Monday, decided to recommend that the government reduce the quarantine requirement on all incoming travellers from April.
The meeting was chaired by the Minister of Public Health Anutin Charnvirakul and attended by the Director-general of the Department of Disease Control, Dr Opas Karnkawinpong, who had earlier indicated he would ask committee members to focus on the incubation period for the disease.
Must still be approved by the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) and will initially apply equally to foreigners and Thai nationals
The recommended new quarantine measures must next be approved by the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration and receive the rubber stamp from the government to take effect for incoming passengers and tourists in April.
The proposal includes a reduction in the quarantine requirement for both Thai nationals and foreign travellers from 14 days to 7 days once the visitor has been inoculated against the Covid-19 virus within a 14 day to 3 month window and can produce evidence such as a vaccine passport in addition to having a negative Covid-19 test result before flying.
The new regime also includes a reduction in quarantine for those who are not vaccinated but have negative Covid 19 test results, from 14 days to 10 days.
Travellers from Africa still subject to 14 days quarantine because of the South African variant
At this time, an exception is being made for Africa because of the South African ‘B1351’ variant of the disease which has proved not only more infectious but has also shown resistance to the current version of the AstraZeneca vaccine which is Thailand’s preferred jab against the virus and the basis for the kingdom’s vaccination campaign now underway and expected to be complete by the end of December.
In mid-January, the Department of Disease Control was considering extending the quarantine period for travellers from Africa from 14 to 21 days after a handful of passengers, including one Thai returnee businessman, tested positive for the new strain.
Minister in an upbeat mood as he promises to work to open the kingdom and help the economy
In an upbeat message to the public and the ailing foreign tourism industry, Minister Anutin made it clear that his ministry and officials understood the economic imperative at this difficult time.
‘We are prepared to open the country to help drive economic growth,’ he said.
He also suggested the complete scrapping of the quarantine scheme was a goal and option for the future for certain passengers although it was not clear whether this would apply to certain foreign tourists or Thai nationals returning home.
‘If we can administer vaccines to 70% of all medical workers by October, we may consider abolishing mandatory quarantine requirements for some groups,’ he revealed.
Foreign tourism industry wants quarantine scrapped
In January, Marisa Sukosol Nunbhakdi, the President of the Thai Hotels Association (THA) called on the government to move swiftly to remove the mandatory quarantine requirement.
She cited it as the chief obstacle to a return to a sustainable level of income for the country’s struggling tourism industry which contributed a bottom line of ฿2.2 trillion to the economy in 2019.
It is understood foreign tourism drives up to 20% of economic activity between the tourism industry itself and other sectors that feed off it.
Thailand’s twin-engine economy is driven by tourism and exports. The two account for 70% of the kingdom’s GDP.
Industry leaders have repeatedly told government officials that many tourism-related concerns will not be able to wait or make it through 2021.
Business owners have already been extended to the limits of their financial resources in 2020 and after the second wave of this virus in recent months.
‘Tourism-related operators will not be able to stay afloat until mass vaccination programmes take place globally,’ stressed Chamnan Srisawat, the President of the Tourism Council of Thailand, earlier this year.
Not clear what the impact of this move will be
It is not clear, yet, how yesterday’s proposal, if given the green light, will help out the foreign tourism industry here.
The reduced quarantine period will certainly attract extra foreign tourist numbers given the prohibitively high cost of alternative quarantine packages costing from ฿35,000 to ฿140,000 and the more free time allowed to incoming visitors.
Travel industry surveys have shown that between 83 and 90% of potential foreign tourists would not opt for a holiday involving any form of quarantine with the average stay being three weeks.
Minister of Tourism has equated the removal of quarantine to achieving 5 million visitors in 2021
In January, the Minister of Tourism and Sports, Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn, accepted the removal of the quarantine requirement was the key to refloating the industry this year and suggested that its removal would guarantee 5 million visitors in 2021.
It is known that there is understandable reticence and caution among Ministry of Public Health officials at removing the requirement entirely, not least because the measure is overwhelmingly supported by the Thai public and indeed many tourism operators themselves.
Emergency decree to regulate incoming traffic
Another key consideration in all of this is the emergency decree and the closure of Thailand’s airspace to normal commercial air transport operations.
It comes amid confusion with countries, worldwide, stiffening outbound flight restrictions on their populations as vaccination programmes are being rolled out.
In recent days, the Governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), told a local Thai media outlet that visitor numbers from July to October could even go lower.
It is also debatable if the kingdom’s foreign tourist level will return to anything like the level seen in 2019 as long as visitors must obtain a certificate of entry to travel through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as other burdensome and tortuous requirements.
Public supports quarantine as a bulwark in protecting the kingdom from the Covid-19 virus
In January, a Tourism Council of Thailand (TCT) survey suggested that 60% of the public supported the retention of quarantine at this time and surprisingly, no less than 50% of tourist business operators themselves.
The corresponding figure in the United Kingdom where mandatory quarantine only went into effect some weeks ago, is 76% of the general public according to a YouGov poll.
Thailand’s national vaccine passport comes on stream even as World Health Organisation opposes the concept in public statements from officials
The minister, Mr Anutin, also on Monday, revealed that a vaccine passport would be made available to Thai nationals for use abroad once they received the second dose of the vaccine at a cost of ฿100.
He also disclosed the government was purchasing a further 10 million doses as top medics are encouraging a wider vaccination base.
‘We have enough vaccines from AstraZeneca, and we are planning to get 10 million more doses from them, if they can produce more for us,’ he said.
Mr Anutin told the press that his officials are waiting on the World Health Organisation to finalise its proposal regarding a vaccine passport system. However, officials at the Geneva-based world health body have expressed nothing but scepticism and hostility to the concept in recent weeks.
On Tuesday, Mike Ryan, a senior executive at the body and Emergencies Programme Director said: ‘Vaccine passports’ for COVID-19 should not be used for international travel because of numerous concerns, including ethical considerations that coronavirus vaccines are not easily available globally.’
A step in the right direction
Monday’s announcement may be a step in the right direction but it does not herald a full reopening of Thailand to international tourists as of yet.
The incoming visitor figures for April, May and June will tell us that.
Meanwhile, the effective rollout of the vaccine programme, the course of the virus and conditions around the world impacting the return to the international air transport system will tell us even more.