This week, it appeared the Phuket Sandbox initiative was gaining ground with up to 14,000 foreign tourists scheduled for July and more airlines requesting slots at Phuket International Airport. The incident has been highlighted as an extremely low risk one by tourist industry figures on the island but taken into consideration with the threat of quarantine for all flight passengers when an infected person is detected, the possibility of larger flight loads as the popularity of the scheme grows, and the threat posed by the Delta variant, it may prompt authorities to look at the acceptance of travellers with Chinese vaccines as three top Thai doctors have just confirmed that AstraZeneca is more effective at immunising against the now dominant Delta virus variant which is spreading throughout the world.

Twelve of the thirteen passengers on an Emirates flight this Tuesday to Phuket have requested permission from authorities to quit the holiday island and fly home after being placed in alternative quarantine facilities just hours after a fellow passenger from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) tested positive for the Covid-19 virus. The rising threat from the Delta virus and the lack of efficacy of the two main Chinese vaccines may pose a threat, in the weeks ahead, to the vital economic initiative if further incidents emerge like this and with possibly larger flight loads. It comes as three eminent Thai medical experts have just concluded that the AstraZeneca vaccine is more effective at creating immunity against the surging B1617 or Delta virus variant than the Sinovac vaccine.

Dr Kusak Kukiattikoon, the Head of the Phuket Provincial Public Health Office which is charged with oversight of efforts to keep the islands as safe as possible from the virus threat. On Thursday, he confirmed that 12 out of 13 passengers on Tuesday’s Emirates flight who had been moved into quarantine after a United Arab Emirates (UAE) passenger vaccinated with the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine, was confirmed as being infected with the virus on Tuesday night, have asked to be allowed fly home after their holiday on the island was left ruined by the unfortunate development.

Twelve tourists who arrived on an Emirates flight from Dubai to Phuket on Tuesday with a United Arab Emirates passenger who tested positive for the Covid-19 virus later that night, have made a request to authorities to be flown home after they found themselves moved to a special quarantine hotel designated for such an eventuality.

The news was confirmed on Thursday by Dr Kusak Kukiattikoon, the Head of the Phuket Provincial Public Health Office.

20 people rounded up and placed in quarantine

He also disclosed that 20 people in all have been rounded up and placed into quarantine as a result of the infection detected in the traveller from the UAE.

Emirates flight EK378 arrived in Phuket at 12.30 pm last Tuesday. 

The tourist had been fully vaccinated with the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine in October and November last year.

He had also tested negative within 72 hours of this week’s flight to the holiday island.

Nothing out of the ordinary, the top medical official assured the public and media in Phuket this week

Details of the incident were given earlier during the week by Dr Kusak who insisted that the discovery was nothing out of the ordinary and to be expected.

He insisted it did not represent a threat to the viability of the Phuket Sandbox scheme

‘This is normal for us and does not affect Phuket much because we find three to five new cases every day. We have already had two cases that were infected from abroad. Those cases came to Phuket by boat,’ Dr Kusat reported when briefing the media on the incident. ‘He tested negative in his home country before departure. However, there are many methods used to test for COVID-19, and we found him positive.’

13 tourists taken to a designated quarantine hotel and placed in 14 days quarantine at their own expense

It is understood the other 13 inbound tourists who arrived with the infected man were taken to a designated quarantine hotel under the local Alternative State Quarantine Scheme.

They were expected to stay at the facility for 14 days where they were expected to be regularly tested.

It is not known what the charge for this accommodation and supervision is but under the terms and conditions of the Phuket Sandbox scheme, the traveller is responsible for costs associated with public safety protocols including quarantine measures ordered by officials.

Tourists on the flight who were quarantined, bar one, asked to be returned home said Dr Kusak Thursday

Now all of the quarantined passengers except for one have asked to be flown home.

On Thursday, the top official told the press that 12 of the now quarantined tourists who were also the subject of further tests had ‘informed their intention to return to their countries’.

‘The other 13 passengers on the flight have been considered high risk and taken to quarantine at an alternative local quarantine venue for 14 days,’ he had confirmed earlier.

Phuket and Thailand’s foreign tourism industry pinning its hopes on the ‘Phuket Sandbox’

The news from Phuket is unfortunate for the foreign tourism industry which is pinning its hopes on the scheme to lead the way for the successful relaunch of Thailand’s still stalled tourism sector even within a difficult and threatening global environment with the threat of virus variants and an increasing possibility that COVID-19 may never be full eradicated.

It is being reported that over 2,500 foreigners have arrived in Phuket since last Thursday’s reopening and that over 130,000 room nights have been booked for July with the latest projected number for foreign visitors to the island set at just over 14,000 for the month.

Officials have also now confirmed that over 70% of the island’s population have received two vaccine doses mostly with the Sinovac jab which continues to be purchased in large quantities by Thai authorities.

Airport boss says 33 airlines now wish to fly into Phuket with 10 lodging requests for July

Before this disturbing development, on Tuesday, with the UAE passenger’s positive test leading to all those on the flight being transferred into quarantine, earlier in the day at Phuket International Airport, Deputy Manager Mr Sophon Saraphat, had some very positive news.

He confirmed that no less than 33 airlines had asked for permission to fly regular services to Phuket including 10 in July and 17 in August.

‘We have received requests from 33 airlines informing us that they want to operate flights to Phuket from July through to the end of October. Among these airlines, 10 have filed requests to operate in July and 17 more in August,’ he told the media.

No return to pre-pandemic levels

He did not provide any further information on the identities of the airlines or the proposed new services or routes.

Nor did he indicate what proportion were international carriers or domestic operators.

The airport official indicated he thought the Phuket initiative had begun well but it would not herald a return to the foreign tourism levels seen before the pandemic and the closure of Thailand’s borders in April 2020.

‘If we can contain the COVID outbreak to a minimal number of infected cases going into the high season then we hope that people will gain increased confidence and even more flights will be scheduled to Phuket,’ he disclosed. ‘However, we do not anticipate the numbers returning to the pre-pandemic figures anytime soon due to the ongoing battle with and impact of COVID in countries all over the world.’

Health officials on Phuket guard against visitors from within Thailand with new vaccination requirements

Meanwhile, Dr Kusak of the Phuket Provincial Public Health Office explained the greatest threat to Phuket’s sandbox experiment and plan to lead the recovery of the Thai foreign tourism sector came from travellers within Thailand including those from Bangkok and the four southernmost provinces.

Governor Narong Woonsiew has already announced that domestic tourists will be required to be fully vaccinated and show a negative test result before being allowed entry to Phuket.

The vaccination, as with international travellers, must have taken place at least 14 days prior to entry into the now heavily protected province.

New protocol shows more confidence in AstraZeneca vaccine against the deadly variant sweeping Thailand

This has now been amended as it is reported that authorities will accept one AstraZeneca vaccine dose in what is an unofficial, tacit admission of the lack of efficacy of the Chinese Sinovac vaccine in the current environment with the threat posed by the Delta virus variant.

The incident and consequences linked with the traveller vaccinated with a Chinese vaccine come as Thailand, on Friday, recorded 9,276 cases and 72 deaths with a rising level of infections driven by the Delta variant which is beginning to dominate throughout the kingdom.

Thai doctors including Professor Dr Thiravat Hemachudha of the Thai Red Cross Emerging Infectious Diseases Health Science Centre, virologist Dr Anan Jongkaewwattana and Dr Khate Sripratak of the Central Chest Institute, have also just revealed that the AstraZeneca vaccine is more effective than the Sinovac vaccine against the new threat and can offer immunisation against it. 

Hotel manager got the bad news on Tuesday night before an operation was mounted transferring the infected tourist and other flight passengers

On Tuesday night, when the bad news of the positive test came through between 10 pm and 11 pm, the hotel manager in Phuket where the Middle-Eastern guest was staying, was informed and an operation mounted to move the infected tourist and others into state quarantine. 

The situation has been defended by Mr Thaneth Tantipiriyakij of the Phuket Tourism Council who pointed out that the development shows the absolute necessity for the detailed and demanding public health protocols put in place by the government.

Phuket reopening getting up holidaymakers noses with no less than 5 Covid-19 tests to be paid for

He also pointed out that at only 0.05% of visitors so far, the risk of this happening to potential travellers was negligible.

However, this risk rises to 0.75% on a flight containing 15 people and could be as high as 7% on a packed flight of up to 150 people if all travellers are subsequently forced into quarantine.

Chinese vaccines spotlighted as Delta advances

The development may, in turn, prompt Thai authorities to review the admissibility of travellers vaccinated with Chinese vaccines but this may present further difficulties for public health officials working on an international basis with colleagues across the globe as it may be perceived as discriminatory.

Mr Thanaeth, this week, told a Thai national newspaper that the presence, right now, of over 2,000 foreign tourists in Phuket represented an ‘opening hope’ for the island and also for the kingdom. He emphasised that it has seen up to ฿10 million a day spent in Phuket.

He admitted that it was nowhere near the level seen before but accepted that the holiday island must adapt for now to a new normal.

90% of Phuket’s economy depends on the tourism industry as does Thailand’s economic recovery

Just days before the reopening last week, at the end of June, Mr Thaneth spoke with Bloomberg in New York.

He underlined that Thailand’s economy is at least 20% dependent on foreign tourism for its GDP between direct transfers, inward investment and the broader impact of the industry.

In Phuket, that picture is far starker.

90% of Phuket’s economy is dependent on the island’s tourism trade and its inhabitants are working hard to bring the local economy and as a consequence, the kingdom itself, back to life.

‘It’s the start of the reopening of Thailand’s tourism sector in the new normal,’ the Tourism Council of Phuket President declared. ‘We’ll gradually reopen and continuously learn from it to chart the course for tourism to become one of the country’s key economic engines again.’

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