The growing third wave of the virus has just begun to present the Thai government with perhaps its greatest challenge yet as it stands ready to impose lockdowns and wider measures that will hit the economy hard. There are already rumblings of a political wave of discontent as the country struggles to prosecute its vaccination drive which has yet to see at least one dose delivered to 1% of the population with other country’s approaching or already attaining herd immunity.
Thailand’s Public health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul said on Thursday that there still was a chance to avoid another lockdown in areas hardest hit by the third wave of the Covid-19 virus if the public exercises caution and reduces non-essential activity in the coming two weeks. It comes as the top official with the National Security Council, General Nattapol Nakpanit, warns that the Prime Minister has ordered preparations for more intensive and stronger measures in the days and weeks ahead.
Despite a record-breaking figure of 1,543 for new Covid cases on Thursday, Thai authorities are trying to still avoid a full lockdown even on a regional basis, as the country faces the largest challenge yet from the Covid-19 virus.
In the last week, the kingdom has recorded over 6,000 cases more than the total figure seen during the first wave of the virus in 2020.
Following a meeting of key officials of the National Communicable Disease Committee, it was decided to continue to use the colour coded system to apply measures selectively across the country.
18 provinces are currently designated red zone status with the remaining 59 all now orange signalling widespread infection having spread from Bangkok
Although the virus cluster of infection which began in Bangkok’s pubs and entertainment venues has, by now, spread to nearly all provinces, 18 are currently designated as red zones of infection.
These are Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Chon Buri, Khon Kaen, Nakhon Pathom, Nakhon Ratchasima, Nonthaburi, Pathum Thani, Prachuap Khiri Khan, Rayong, Samut Prakan, Sa Kaeo, Samut Sakhon, Suphan Buri, Phuket, Songkhla, Tak and Udon Thani.
All other 59 provinces are now classified as orange zones of infection.
This comes as the pubs and nightlife cluster that originated in Bangkok has now spread throughout the kingdom driven by the more infectious UK variant of the disease thought to have entered Thailand through Cambodia.
Latest measures subject to ongoing review by the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) with stronger measures being debated
The latest move by the government is to limit restaurant opening hours as well as other places of congregation such as schools, shopping centres and arcades.
Restaurants, for now, will close at 9 pm in red zones and 11 pm in orange zones.
However, the situation will be subject to continuous review and on Wednesday, Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha ordered the National Security Council to be ready for stronger measures as the scale of the third wave of infection materialises.
Broader lockdowns are on the agenda
On Wednesday, the Chairman Of the National Security Council General Natthapon Nakpanich said he, personally speaking, thought all pubs and entertainment venues should be first to be targeted with closure orders.
He said General Prayut had given orders to be prepared for wider measures and pointed out that there are now enough army hospital beds to deal with the latest outbreak.
The agency boss also said his officials were in discussion with the Ministry of Public Health on the question of imposing a broader lockdown on areas of high infection.
Minister of Public Health strikes a positive note hoping the emerging outbreak can be contained
Following Thursday’s decision, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Public Health, Anutin Charnvirakul, said this wave of infection could be broken in two weeks if there is cooperation from the public and if all things go well.
He accepted that the alternative would be stronger measures.
‘All parties are expected to cooperate. The cycle of a new wave and disease control will take about two weeks. If we can’t keep the situation and mobility under control within these two weeks, we may see a repeat of much harsher measures of last year,’ he said.
He urged employers to tell staff to work from home and for the public to wear face masks at all times.
Confusion reigns as 49 provinces impose their own restriction criteria on travellers crossing their borders from other parts of Thailand including quarantine
The situation comes as provinces throughout the country have introduced measures of their own as they are authorised to do by the Ministry of the Interior in consultation with the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA).
The effects of these non-uniform measures have been to create confusion and persuade travellers to put off trips and stay where they are.
It has seen bookings disappearing for hotel operators such as those in Pattaya which were reporting 70% occupancy rates in the lead up to the holiday period but are now reporting single-digit figures.
49 provinces have now introduced measures meaning visitors from other provinces must notify their existence to local provincial offices and in many cases, must quarantine for 14 days if their journeys have originated in red zones of infection.
Frustration for the small number of incoming foreign tourists coming out of expensive alternative state quarantine into infection zones and chaos
It is also disappointing and frustrating for the paltry number of incoming foreigners entering Thailand through the expensive alternative quarantine system.
They now find they are being required to quarantine again if they move to key provinces having arrived in a country threatening to enter into lockdown mode with many restrictions already in place including the temporary closure of pubs in red zones or hotspots of infection.
Slow vaccine rollout has not yet reached 1%
There are also concerns that the country’s vaccination rollout is lagging.
Figures from Tuesday showed only 505,744 people have received their first vaccine doses, which is still only 0.72% of the population.
By comparison, in the United Kingdom, nearly 60% of the population have been fully vaccinated while over 90% of people aged 50 years and over have been fully inoculated from the disease.
The vaccines will work despite threats from new variants says a top virologist but only with high levels of the population inoculated.
Thailand’s leading expert on the virus, Dr Yong Poovorawan, has recently explained to the public that while there are variants of the disease that pose a risk notably the ones from South Africa and Brazil, the vaccines are effective and the overarching goal for the country must be to vaccinate 70% of the population.
This figure, he insists, is critical to achieving herd immunity.
Minister defends the Chinese Sinovac vaccine
The Minister of Public Health, Mr Anutin, this week took issue with politicians who suggested the Chinese vaccine Sinovac was only marginally effective.
It followed comments reported in China from George Fu Gao, the Secretary-general of the Chinese Centre for Disease Prevention and Control who said all current Chinese vaccines ‘don’t have very high protection rates’. The expert was speaking to a medical forum.
He later pointed out in an interview with the Communist Party’s Global Times newspaper that he was simply trying to encourage the production of more effective vaccines.
Sinovac vaccine is one of two being used in Thailand
The Sinovac vaccine now being used in Thailand, together with the AstraZeneca jab, had an efficacy rate of 50.17% in clinical trials in Brazil which took place in a medical setting skewing the figures against the jab.
This week, the Thai National Vaccine Institute, through its director Nakorn Premsri, pointed out that the jab is 83.7% effective at preventing medium to severe cases of Covid-19 and 100% effective at preventing the most serious forms of the disease.
The third jab approved in Thailand is the one dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine which has been paused for use in the United States by authorities there after being linked to blood clots in women.
Thailand has ordered 1 million doses of this vaccine to be delivered at the end of 2021.
Members of parliament to be vaccinated in May on a voluntary basis says Mr Anutin as the virus crisis increasingly takes centre stage politically
The Minister of Public Health said that Sinovac was among the jabs that would be available to the members of the upper and lower houses of parliament in May after the holidays, on a voluntary basis.
This followed criticism from some MPs in the lower house who are also calling for answers to how this third wave of the virus emerged with reports of cabinet ministers being linked to the Thong Lor nightlife spots at the centre of the outbreak and questions being raised about the ownership of the venues.
The criticism of the Chinese vaccine drew a trenchant response from Minister Anutin this week.
‘Politicians with no vaccine knowledge have exaggerated foreign news and claimed the AstraZeneca and Sinovac vaccines that the government has purchased are not effective,’ he said. ‘Both vaccines were approved by the World Health Organization for use and many countries have already used them.’