The ‘Test and Go’ entry regime was not even given a hearing this week as senior public health officials simply dismissed the prospect of reviewing the suspension of the scheme imposed on December 21st last. Meanwhile, it is also now considered likely that the proposed reopening of Thailand’s nightlife set for January 15th is off the cards as the government gets tougher with existing venues that are known to be flouting the law and which public officials strongly suspect are at the centre of rising Omicron case numbers.
As the Omicron virus strain brews up a storm in Thailand with surging infections, the Thai government, this week, simply dismissed any prospect of reopening the kingdom to more foreign tourists under the more popular ‘Test and Go’ entry regime. This will see arrival numbers nosedive from January 10th which was the cut off point for those approved before the sudden suspension of the scheme on December 21st last. The rising and now unavoidable Omicron wave has seen Minister of Public Health Anutin Charnvirakul lash out at revellers in pubs and moves by the prime minister to tighten enforcement of regulations governing the sale of alcohol throughout the country. However, despite all this and amid a quickly changing environment as Omicron makes its presence felt in places such as Pattaya and Phuket, some tourism business owners are quietly thinking the unthinkable, that this new wave of the virus may turn out to be good news.
Thailand’s public health officials simply dismissed this week any proposed lifting of the suspension of the popular ‘Test and Go’ entry regime for foreign tourists which will now see the numbers for those arriving in Thailand dive substantially from January 10th, the cut-off point for those who were already approved for entry before the sudden suspension on December 21st last.
Dr Opas Karnkawinpong, the Director-general of the Department of Disease Control told a media briefing on Wednesday that any proposal to lift the suspension could not be reasonably considered given the current Omicron challenge which presents itself to the kingdom and worried public health officials.
Top public health official dismisses ‘Test and Go’ review, more concerned about bars and restaurants where alcohol was being served at this time
‘Under the current circumstances, there’s no plan to bring back Test & Go,’ he confirmed and declined to comment on how long the scheme would remain shut down.
Dr Opas would only comment on the heightened concern officials now have concerning clusters of infection throughout the kingdom linked with bars, pubs, restaurants, entertainment venues as well as workplaces and factories as the COVID-19 threat resurrects itself in a new wave that appears to be driven by the Omicron variant now spreading like wildfire in Thailand although this is not being fully confirmed by officials who have only revealed that the Omicron storm of infection has already reached 55 provinces of the kingdom.
A nod to a more optimistic scenario by the Department of Medical Sciences chief this week who said it will take 2 weeks to find out
There was some nod to a potentially more optimistic scenario linked to the milder clinical effects of Omicron by Dr Supakit Sirilak of the Department of Medical Sciences this week at a CCSA briefing.
She noted that most patients have fully recovered from the current emerging wave after two weeks of isolation although the official line is that the next two weeks will tell the government how serious this new threat to the country is.
Dr Supakit especially referred to new emerging clusters in Chonburi, Khon Kaen and Ubon Ratchathani.
Public Health Minister lashes out at venues serving alcohol, blames revellers for the Omicron breakout
The oncoming storm, on Wednesday, led Minister of Public Health Anutin Charnvirakul to lash out at establishments serving alcohol where Covid-19 clusters had emerged over the last week.
He lambasted the industry for its failure to comply with regulations and strict protocols laid down by public health agencies.
He said that it now means that a plan to reopen entertainment and nightlife venues on January 15th will be reviewed again by the government.
He questioned that lack of ‘conscience’ among business owners and revellers who he blamed for the breakout of the Omicron wave in the country.
Mr Anutin urged local communicable disease committees to pursue legal action against business concerns found in violation of the rules laid down at the end of last year designed to prevent a renewed outbreak of the disease that looks like it is now occurring.
‘The Department of Disease Control will also reconsider whether it would be appropriate to reopen such venues on January 15th,’ Minister Anutin explained although he emphasised that any decision will only be made by the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) chaired by Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha.
Pattaya’s Mayor denies lockdown plans but warned that businesses breaking the law will be closed down
On Tuesday, Pattaya’s Mayor Sukalaya Kethome predicted an extended period of a challenging outbreak as he warned that the Omicron wave could last for one to two months.
The new strain has become rampant in Pattaya and the Bang Lamung district of Chonburi driving up infections in the province east of Bangkok.
Mayor Sukalaya denied, on Tuesday, that there would be a lockdown of bars and pubs but instead warned that any business concern found to be in violation of strict public health laws will be closed down by the provincial communicable disease committee.
Public health official warns of cases at 30,000 per day as she also predicted a two-week learning curve
On Wednesday, Sumanee Wacharasin of the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) gave some idea of the government’s approach to the current situation.
She warned that cases of COVID-19 could again surge into the tens of thousands driven by Omicron.
In December, the Ministry of Public Health made this clear when it said that up to 30,000 cases a day can be expected if Omicron is let loose throughout the kingdom as now appears to be the case.
‘The next two weeks will set the course of the spread,’ Dr Sumanee said. ‘We could see the number of new infections in the tens of thousands if health measures are ignored.’
Travel industry stands ready to co-operate with the government and views some disruption as inevitable
The uncertain and ambiguous nature of this latest threat was also referred to by Sisadiwat Cheewaratanaporn, the President of the Association of Thai Travel Agents.
He said he felt that the industry would take a hit at least until February and promised the support of his members for government efforts to combat the disease.
‘Whatever decision the government has to make to battle the new outbreak, we don’t have a choice but must strictly comply with the rules from health experts, including the suspension of the Test & Go scheme,’ he conceded.
It is already quite certain that the Omicron variant of the disease will grow at an intensive rate.
This was made clear by the World Health Organisation last month which warned governments that this variant of the disease could not be checked at borders.
Hopes that business can bounce back quickly
This week, Mr Sisadiwat also acknowledged that the industry was impacted by events outside Thailand and the wider travel industry.
However, he still hoped that the industry may bounce back if the disease is more benign as an increasing number of studies are suggesting.
There was a similar hope expressed by Mr Suthiphong Pheunphiphop of the Thai Travel Agents Association (TTAA) who pointed to an improved situation this year because of the residual number of ‘Test and Go’ visitors holidaying within Thailand and those due to arrive up to January 10th.
However, he warned that if some relief or good news is not forthcoming then February will be a quiet month for the industry which could see the economic situation in Thailand again unravel.
Minister of Finance Arkhom Termpittayapaisith is also ready to step up with more fiscal supports if the domestic economy needs it with diminished revenues
Minister of Finance Arkhom Termpittayapaisith has come out to say that his ministry is ready to assist with boosting the domestic economy if the Omicron wave leads to a disruption of the country’s efforts to revive the foreign tourism industry.
He said that senior officials were in wait and see mode while listening to the best expert opinion at this time. If foreign tourism is again closed off then his ministry would act.
‘The ministry must find measures to stimulate domestic spending and support job creation so that there will be money circulating in the economy,’ he said.
New Year’s challenge driven by Omicron predicted at the last Bank of Thailand Monetary Policy Committee
The outcome of this Omicron storm, which has been anticipated by government officials and planners, was referred to by the Bank of Thailand at its last Monetary Policy Committee meeting on December 22nd when the influential committee voted to leave interest rates unchanged.
Minutes from the meeting warned that an Omicron outbreak that disrupted the economy in January was the key risk facing the kingdom at this time.
It noted the uncertainty surrounding the situation and pinned its projections on the basis that the economic recovery would move ahead in January even though the government had just paused the ‘Test and Go’ entry scheme for foreign tourists the day before.
It also predicted a short term surge in inflation in the opening quarter of 2022 but felt that the overall target of 1 to 3% for 2022 would be achieved this year with a growth rate of 3.4% projected for 2022 following a disappointing 0.9% in 2021.
Crackdown ordered on venues illegally selling alcohol in dangerous environments without proper protocols
Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha, who returned to work at Government House on Thursday, has ordered a crackdown on the abuse of COVID-19 public health restrictions by entertainment venues, some of whom have opened illegally while others have been found by public health officials to have been breaching regulations to sell alcohol and operate pub-like venues where visitors were not observing the strict protocols laid down by the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration.
The news comes as virus cases linked with the Omicron variant of the disease appear to be taking off across Thailand.
Government being briefed daily on Omicron wave which has been linked with pub venue clusters
On Wednesday, a spokesperson for the Prime Minister’s office, Trisulee Traisanakul said that the government leader has been receiving reports daily from concerned public health officials who are monitoring emerging clusters throughout Thailand that are predominantly linked to pubs and entertainment venues selling alcohol.
It has been confirmed that Omicron cases have been detected in 55 provinces with well over 2,500 cases while official figures showing rising COVID-19 case rates overall in the past few days are striking.
Figures to the start of the week were only showing 19.01% of cases were Omicron since the kingdom reopened on November 1st.
The spike in recent days is thought to be linked to rising Omicron cases although reports from Bangkok on the ground suggest that people being treated within hospitals are not being informed of the strain of the Covid variant that they have tested positive for.
Some report being asked to pay for this information.
Omicron is expected to become the dominant strain in Thailand as it is now rising exponentially
The official position is that, up to Wednesday, 2,338 cases were Omicron which is now rocketing across the kingdom and is known to be super infectious. The numbers now are certain to be far higher than this.
On Thursday, Thailand’s daily infection number rose to 5,775 from 3,899 with Omicron considered by most analysts to be the driver of the new surge and Dr Opas warning that case numbers over 10,000 per day will be seen in short order.
‘We could have over 10,000 new infections very soon,’ he warned reporters after the latest jump in figures driven by new cases in Bangkok and Chonburi were revealed.
The ability of the Omicron variant to spread was examined in the last 24 hours by Dr Roby Bhattacharyya, a leading expert on infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital in the United States.
‘One case of measles would cause 15 cases within 12 days. One case of omicron would give rise to another six at four days, 36 cases at eight days and 216 after 12 days,’ he explained.
This may help explain why Thai public officials and the government are warning that the next two weeks will tell a lot about the fate of the country’s efforts to resurrect its tourism industry, the wider Thai economy as it moves forward into 2022 and the course of the virus itself in the kingdom.
The United Kingdom and United States appear to be aiming to ride out this latest Omicron driven wave
It comes as governments across the world are adopting a somewhat different strategy in the face of this latest threat and variant with both the United States and the United Kingdom appearing to plump for the option of riding out the storm caused by the Omicron wave in the hope that it’s now confirmed lower hospitalisation rate will see significantly fewer deaths.
On Tuesday, at the World Health Organisation, Dr Abdi Mahamud the Incident Manager of the global health agency described this as a potential decoupling of the surge cases driven by the Omicron strain of Covid and deaths.
World Health Organisation (WHO) suggests that Omicron may be good news but it requires more study
‘We are seeing more and more studies pointing out that Omicron is infecting the upper part of the body. Unlike other ones, which target the lungs causing severe pneumonia,’ he outlined.
He told the reporters that this could be good news but must first of all be confirmed by further research.
‘It can be good news, but we really require more studies to prove that,’ the WHO official concluded. ‘What we are seeing now is the decoupling between the cases and the deaths.’
This follows a finding by a Hong Kong research team that found Omicron to be 70 times faster at spreading than the Delta variant of the disease but 10 times slower at infecting the lungs.
This may explain the lower number of people requiring hospitalisation and the assistance of ventilators from the Omicron variant.
Crackdown on booze venues ordered from the top and a warning to officials turning a blind eye
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister’s Office is calling for more rigorous enforcement of public health laws across Thailand particularly in tourist hotspots and in Chonburi which has, in the last 24 to 48 hours, again become a hotbed for the virus.
There are already reports from Pattaya of some establishments being closed down by officials for not complying with the regulations as laid down in mid-December allowing for the serving of alcohol and the controlled provision of some forms of entertainment in a seated environment
The Prime Minister, General Prayut, has called on all provincial and local authorities to tighten up the supervision and stricter enforcement of the regulations while also warning that officials who fail to carry out their duties may face disciplinary action.
‘In the past, there were cases of non-compliance with the measures including those who violated the law illegally opening entertainment venues until the shop became a source of spreading the infection. The Prime Minister is worried about this. He is urging local officials to ensure increased rigour in enforcing all regulations. Operators have to strictly follow disease control measures. This is to provide effective epidemic control while entrepreneurs can still carry on their business and employees still have jobs,’ said his spokeswoman Ms Trisulee Traisanakul.
Brewing emergency in Phuket with tourists coming down sick with Omicron but who do not wish to go to hospital incurring huge expense
Meanwhile, the Omicron virus strain is also making its presence felt in Phuket where the sandbox scheme is still open.
Hoteliers are facing an escalating problem with guests contracting the disease but not wishing to be hospitalised.
Kongsak Khoopongsakorn is the President of the Thai Hotels Association in the southern region.
He said that hoteliers are not in a position to force holidaymakers into being hospitalised especially as their symptoms are essentially not severe and the deposit required on a hospital bed is ฿100,000.
He also mentioned that there was some uncertainty as to whether insurance policies cover these initial expenses.
He said hoteliers in Phuket are preparing their own hotel room isolation schemes for infected guests who can carry on their holiday with minimal disruption while also protecting the public from the more infectious variant.
‘Hotel isolation is the solution for Phuket to receive tourists without imposing rigid measures, which will hurt the industry even more,’ Mr Kongsak pointed out.
At least 50 hotels have identified over 500 hotel bedrooms for such a purpose if required.
Mr Kongsak also agreed that if the current Omicron wave passes in the next few weeks and we continue to see moderate rates of hospitalisation and serious illness, then it could well lead to a brightening of the outlook for foreign tourism business concerns.