Talk of lifting the alcohol ban on Phuket is scrapped as the island faces an escalating COVID-19 outbreak and is pursuing a third booster vaccine shot using the AstraZeneca jab. Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha, on a visit to Laem Chabang in Chonburi, only mentioned the Phuket Sandbox scheme as the planned October reopening to foreign tourism appears to be in doubt.
Thailand’s plan to reopen to foreign tourism in October has been left in a state of dysfunction over the weekend after the Minister of Public Health, Anutin Charnvirakul, on Thursday, appeared to directly contradict fellow cabinet minister and Bhumjaithai Party member, Minister of Tourism and Sports, Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn who on Wednesday stated categorically that four regions would reopen on October 1st and that Bangkok as well as 21 other locations and provinces would reopen on October 15th. ‘We cannot order it yet because we must investigate academic information and make an assessment,’ Mr Anutin insisted. ‘No one said the country will reopen on October 1st.’
The Minister of Public Health Anutin Charnvirakul, on Thursday, suggested baldly that Thailand may not reopen to foreign tourists at all in October and that no final decision has been made on the matter.
‘If we are not ready, the reopening will not be possible,’ Mr Anutin told reporters. ‘We must look at several factors.’
The Public Health Minister and Deputy Prime Minister made the comments as there is growing criticism and unease among academics and some health experts about the proposed reopening in October as outlined by the Minister of Tourism and Sports on Wednesday following a high-level meeting with Bangkok’s Governor Aswin Kwanmuang and top officials from various ministries.
After Wednesday’s meeting Minster Phiphat made the situation clear on the reopening of up to 26 provinces in October with Bangkok’s scheduled for the 15th
After that meeting, Mr Phiphat made it clear that four provinces were reopening on October 1st, namely Chiang Mai, Prachuap Khiri Khan, Phetchabun and Chonburi including the once-popular but now decimated holiday resort of Pattaya.
Bangkok reopening delayed as figures for fully vaccinated must nearly double by October 15th to go-ahead
The Tourism Minister and fellow Bhumjaithai Party member was also bullish and adamant that Bangkok would reopen by October 15th having earlier suggested that it may be November.
‘I’m sure that on October 15th, Bangkok can open to foreign tourists at the same time in all districts in Bangkok,’ Mr Phiphat said.
Minister of Public Health insisted no decision on any reopening had been made by public health authorities
However, on Thursday, the Minister of Public Health poured cold water on the reports.
He said the local bodies responsible for the reopenings would have to pitch their proposal to the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) which would have to evaluate them and consult with medical committees set up to decide on such matters.
Mr Anutin explained that Bangkok has its own public health service and structures that must be involved in any such decision.
Governor of Bangkok insists that no decision will be made until 70% of the population has been vaccinated
On Thursday, however, the Governor of Bangkok, Aswin Kwanmuang, while confirming the October 15th date, underlined that at least 60% of the public across the 50 districts of the city must be vaccinated for that to happen, a sharp rise from the current figure of 37% with two doses.
On Friday, Governor Aswin was even more cautious and was adamant that there is no October 15th date set for reopening Bangkok despite the bullish claims made by the Minister of Tourism and Sports, Mr Phiphat, just days earlier after a meeting with him.
He said that consideration of the matter could only take place once 70% of the population of the city had been vaccinated.
‘Any other people who talked about the Bangkok reopening have no authority. You have to ask me. We’ll reopen when it’s safe. If a new outbreak erupts, we’ll be back to square one. There is no pressure. I’m a heavy man. They can’t do that,’ he said.
The governor said the city may reach the goal of a 70% vaccination rate at any time between October 10th and the 22nd.
Health officials insisting that each member of the public has one AstraZeneca dose as a condition
Public health officials are concerned that at least one dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine must have been administered to immunised populations.
A booster programme using that vaccine on the island of Phuket has gotten underway with this objective.
The situation further confirms the lack of efficacy of the Sinovac vaccine against the Delta variant of the virus which has already been made clear by leading public health experts such as Dr Prasit Watanapa of Siriraj Hospital’s Faculty of Medicine.
‘We cannot order it yet because we must investigate academic information and make an assessment,’ Minster Anutin told reporters on Thursday
This comes amid reports that demand for the UK Swedish jab still exceeds supply as doses are required in Phuket where public health officials are pursuing a booster vaccination campaign with the more effective vaccine to help deal with the escalating outbreak within the island, home of the Phuket Sandbox.
Mr Anutin also questioned whether the Department of Disease Control may want to enforce conditions on the origination of potential incoming tourists arriving in the kingdom if it opens up.
‘The matter cannot be rushed as information on the pandemic situation and risks must be thoroughly addressed,’ he explained. ‘We cannot order it yet because we must investigate academic information and make an assessment. No one said the country will reopen on October 1st.’
Academic and medical expert warns that foreign tourists may pick up COVID travelling to Thailand
Among those criticising the rush to reopen the country is well known Chulalongkorn University expert, Thira Woratanarat.
The associate professor at the Faculty of Medicine at the university took to Facebook on Thursday evening to condemn the headlong rush to welcome back foreign tourists to many parts of the kingdom proposed for reopening schemes, which together account for up to 80% of past visitor numbers and income.
Mr Thira said that the number of infections throughout Thailand was still worryingly high.
He warned that even fully vaccinated tourists could pick up the infection while travelling from their own country to Thailand.
Figures released, this week, however, by the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) and in relation to the Phuket Sandbox scheme only shows 0.28% of 32,005 visitors had tested positive for COVID-19 in the period of testing on the island after their arrival from countries around the world.
Phuket officials rule out lifting the ban on alcohol on the island as they battle a severe COVID-19 outbreak
In Phuket, officials have ruled out, for now, lifting the ban on the sale of alcohol on the island while public health officials battle the ongoing outbreak which has seen hospital beds full and non-critical Covid patients moved out of wards to field hospitals with over 90% of the 2,542 beds, reserved for Covid patients, used up.
The island has consistently reported new cases above 200 per day with 246 on Wednesday as well as ongoing deaths from the disease which is widespread on the island including nine clusters of infection identified.
Kusak Kukiattikoon, the Chief of the Phuket Provincial Public Health Office said, this week, after a meeting of the Phuket Provincial Communicable Disease Committee, that the possibility of allowing alcohol to be sold on Phuket may be reconsidered once the current situation was brought under control.
Alcohol ban severely impacting tourist numbers
‘We ask that Phuket Province delay considering this issue first because the area still has a high number of infected people. If there is a decrease in the number of infected people within the area, the issue can be considered again,’ Mr Kusak said following the meeting which was chaired by Phuket Vice Governor Pichet Panapong.
The issue of alcohol is a key one for many tourists considering visiting the island particularly as an overwhelming majority of the existing market for the Phuket Sandbox are from western countries.
One tourist industry source identified it as a major impediment for the scheme which is now competing with other countries with its ‘hands tied behind its back’.
Phuket Sandbox is the priority for the government which is battling to save it with a booster programme
In the meantime, it is understood that Phuket is being given priority by the Ministry of Public Health as it pushes to administer a third AstraZeneca booster shot to residents of the island who only received two Sinovac doses in the early push to reopen by July 1st.
The protection of the Phuket Sandbox is now the top priority of the government as its failure would mean a serious blow to Thailand’s credibility.
Dr Chalermphong Sukontapol, the Director of Vachira Phuket Hospital, this week, confirmed that such a programme was moving forward as an urgent priority.
‘The booster shot is to be administered by using a subcutaneous injection technique which is effective in building immunity,’ he said.
Prime Minister in Chonburi on Friday appeared to be in election mode as he focused on economic goals
In the meantime, General Prayut, the Prime Minister, on Friday, on his visit to Laem Chabang in Chonburi emphasised his government’s mission to push back on the economic front.
It comes as Krungskri Research the economic analysis arm of the bank, in a bulletin on Friday, suggested that the economy could grow by 0.6% this year on the back of a third-quarter recovery and a strong export performance.
More clarity on his will come at the end of the month at the next Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of Thailand.
The Prime Minister, speaking to his audience, claimed that the kingdom was on target for record export growth in 2021 of 12.4% while extolling investment in the government’s flagship Eastern Economic Corridor project in the area.
No mention of October tourism reopening
General Prayut praised the Phuket Sandbox project highlighting the fact that the scheme had seen 33,000 visitors who had spent ฿1.6 billion in the area since it opened on July 1st last.
He said the scheme would be extended to other areas during the coming months but did not mention October as a deadline.
In a warm and somewhat emotional speech, resembling something like an election rally he told locals in the port city: ‘All that has been said, it’s part of the government’s efforts to make the development of our country continue according to the national strategy. This visit, it’s like every time I have come in close contact with my brothers, sisters and civil servants who are the key forces in driving the country together. I notice everyone’s hopeful eyes and friendly smiles. It gives me more encouragement to continue working for all Thai people.’