Mixed signals from Minister of Public Health Anutin Charnvirakul and the Director of the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) General Supoj Malaniyom on Tuesday about prospects for the restarting of the ‘Test and Go’ entry regime which officials are poised to begin reviewing on Friday. General Supoj suggested that countries may be taken off the list of 63 approved for the reopening on November 1st and that the screening process for the entry regime may be strengthened together with other changes. He also did not rule out the permanent suspension of the scheme.
There was some hope on Tuesday for foreign tourism operators as Minister of Public Health Anutin Charnvirakul suggested that a decision to cease all approvals for entry into the kingdom under the ‘Test and Go’ regime through the Thailand Pass system may be reviewed early in the new year. On Tuesday, a meeting of the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) confirmed that the quicker entry regime has been suspended temporarily so that public health officials can test the current number of visitors and a further 90,000 who are predicted to arrive up to January 10th 2022. Minister Anutin indicated that the government may lift the suspension of ‘Test and Go’ on January 4th as it was reacting quickly and decisively to the current situation, an approach insisted upon by Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha.
At Government House in Bangkok on Tuesday the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA), the country’s administrative body during the COVID-19 virus emergency chaired by Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha, decided to suspend immediately all approvals under the Thailand Pass system for both ‘Test and Go’ passengers from 63 approved countries and all those applying to access the kingdom under the more complicated Sandbox entry regime.
The decision came after the Prime Minister summoned scientists and public health experts to the top-level meeting as he emphasised that Thailand would move quickly in reacting to the Omicron threat in the interests of the safety of the public but would also seek to strike the right balance between public health and economic interests.
Public Health Minister: suspension may be only temporary, officials aware that this is the High Season
After the meeting, Minister of Public Health, Anutin Charnvirakul stressed that the closure of entry to tourists arriving under the fast track ‘Test and Go’ process may still be a temporary measure.
The situation is to be revisited on January 4th. Mr Anutin underlined that ministers and officials were cognisant of the fact that this was the High Season for the travel and hospitality industry depending on incoming foreign tourists.
The government revealed that since November 1st when the country reopened, over 200,000 people had applied for entry to the kingdom and been approved. Currently, 90,000 foreign tourists are due to arrive between now and January 10th.
All approved through the Thailand Pass system will be allowed to enter, 90,000 up to January 10th 2022
All those who were approved by the Thailand Pass process will be allowed entry into Thailand with just one night’s Safety and Health Administration (SHA) Plus quarantine for an initial PCR test but on Tuesday, the top-level meeting also decided to add a second PCR Covid 19 test on the 7th day for all incoming visitors.
It is reported that the government’s priority now will be monitoring the current influx of foreign tourists within the country.
Kiattiphum Wongrajit, the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Public Health, explained after the meeting that the infection rate among incoming visitors is currently running at 0.1 to 0.2% which means that the kingdom may have to deal with up to 200 more people with COVID-19 with the current rate being 25% of those thought to be carrying the Omicron variant although this may rise as the virus spreads throughout western countries even among vaccinated people.
Bad news confirmed by Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha, the closure to applications was immediate as Thailand grapples with the Omicron threat
After the meeting, the Prime Minister, General Prayut confirmed the news.
‘There will be no new approvals for the arrival schemes until the situation is reviewed on January 4th,’ he confirmed.
He said the focus of officials now was on ensuring that approved passengers who are due to arrive up to January 10th are properly received and tested so that an outbreak driven by the Omicron variant can be avoided for as long as possible.
He was also more optimistic about the country’s ability to deal with Omicron and in this context, he urged people in Thailand to cooperate with the rollout of third booster vaccine doses.
‘Importantly, although the Omicron variant spreads fast, its symptoms are controllable and treatment is easier,’ he observed.
The Prime Minister’s Office was anxious to assert that this was not a closure to foreign tourism at this time but a temporary suspension.
General Prayut himself said he did not expect Omicron to become a factor so quickly but assured the public in Thailand the government was ready to act no matter what course this current threat takes.
Travellers have 2 choices, alternative quarantine or the still open Phuket Sandbox quarantine scheme
As of now, there are only two entry options for travellers to the kingdom which apply to all incoming passengers both Thai nationals and potential foreign arrivals.
One is to submit to full alternative quarantine which could see visitors detained for up to 10 days depending on their country of origination and vaccination status and the other is to apply for entry under the Phuket Sandbox programme which remains open.
It may offer more of a holiday but only attracted 440 visitors per day to Phuket when the scheme opened on July 1st.
Meanwhile, in the South, the Governor of Surat Thani province gave a press conference on Tuesday in which he confirmed that three foreign tourists on Ko Samui had tested positive for the Omicron variant and were being treated with those who came into contact with the visitors being screened. All had negative tests reported so far.
Ko Samui saw 40% to 50% occupancy this month
Wichwut Jinto said, currently, booking on the holiday islands were healthy with an occupancy rate of 40% to 50% reported up to December 16th among 2254 Safety and Health Administration (SHA) Plus licensed hotels.
He emphasised that officials were briefing the local population on the new variant so the public felt more at ease about the situation.
The Ko Samui Sandbox opened on July 15th last.
Nearly 8,000 visitors have applied and been approved for entry to the island with over 7,026 arriving from July 15th to December 19th.
The governor explained screening methods for isolating foreign tourists arriving from Suvarnabhumi Airport so that they can be tested as soon as they land on Ko Samui.
Anyone testing positive is taken to Samui Hospital.
Three foreign tourists with Omicron virus on Ko Samui, all patients are reported to be in good health
He gave details of the three cases detected so far involving Omicron.
All three are reported to be in good health despite having the new form of the disease.
One is a 34-year-old UK citizen who arrived on Ko Samui after travelling with her husband from the United Kingdom through Suvarnabhumi Airport on December 15th.
A second is a 55-year-old Belgian man who arrived through Suvarnabhumi Airport from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) via Singapore. He landed in Ko Samui on December 16th last.
On the same day, the third infected passenger, a 56-year-old Briton also arrived from the United Kingdom via Singapore.
Ronnarong Phoolpipat, the Chairman of the Tourism Association of Ko Samui revealed that the island had already seen some cancellations but these were more concerned with lockdowns occurring in countries of origin as the Omicron virus variant spreads.
Public Health minister appeared to be sending a positive message to foreign tourism businesses
After the meeting and the swift decision, the Minister of Public Health Anutin who broke the bad news on Monday underlined that this was just a pause and not a full suspension.
He insisted that foreign tourism operators should not worry too much about how long this suspension may stay in place.
He also ruled out, for now, any speculation suggesting another possible lockdown of the kingdom in response to Omicron.
He said that in early January if the government felt satisfied that the situation can be controlled, then the country’s doors under the quicker entry regime may be reopened again.
Minister Anutin told reporters that the list of 63 countries eligible for the ‘Test and Go’ regime will not be trimmed as a part of any effort to restart the more convenient entry process which accounted for 71% of arrivals after November 1st.
CCSA chief struck a different tone however
This contrasted somewhat with a statement given by Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) chief General Supoj Malaniyom who told reporters that the list of 63 eligible countries will indeed be revised by the body as well as proposals to strengthen screening and public health measures.
General Supoj said the high-risk countries will be identified by the CCSA and that a review was to begin this Friday of the entire ‘Test and Go’ regime which may need to be reorganised.
He also suggested that the scheme may be shelved completely by the government if the risks to public health are considered too high at this time.