Minister still on a mission about face masks. A key committee within the Ministry of Public Health is looking to make sure that the public, including foreign tourists, continues to wear face masks even after the virus has been declared endemic in the coming months which may still include some sort of mandate or legal provision in certain circumstances.
Thailand’s Deputy Prime Minister Minister of Public Health Anutin Charnvirakul has come out strongly this week to insist on the need to make sure that face masks are still worn throughout the kingdom even after the current emergency comes to an end with endemic status declared. On Thursday, he told reporters that he has asked his officials to find a way to direct the public’s behaviour in this respect even if the current health threat itself can be seen as under control for now. Minister Anutin also could not confirm a date for removal of the Thailand Pass application which he acknowledged was being worked towards and said that a declaration of endemic status would require input from the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Thailand’s Minister of Public Health Anutin Charnvirakul has doubled down on his stance regarding the use of face masks this week as he called on his officials to encourage their use among the public and foreign tourists.
This could extend even to a legal basis making them still mandatory after the kingdom has declared endemic status with regard to the disease, a move widely expected in the weeks ahead.
The minister, also a deputy prime minister and leader of the Bhumjaithai Party, who has been in office since 2019, famously called for western foreigners who failed to wear face masks to be removed from Thailand in February 2020.
This was at the onset of the pandemic, after a German man, with a wave of his hand, dismissed his personal offer of a free mask at a promotional event at Siam BTS station in the Pathumwan area of Bangkok at that time.
In 2020, the minister hit out at ‘farang’ who didn’t care saying they should be kicked out of Thailand
An irritated minister later lashed at ‘farang’ who didn’t care and even called for them to be removed from Thailand.
Mr Anutin subsequently apologised for his intemperate comments but insisted his position was the correct one.
It is widely known that a target date of July 1st has been agreed upon for the declaration of endemic status although, on Thursday, Mr Anutin appeared less committed to that date as he briefed reporters on further liberalisation measures expected from the country’s Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) which takes advice from both the minister and his officials as well as key scientific committees or academic panels that are still examining the situation.
‘We are already walking that way. When will the announcement be made? I have to wait and see the attitude of the World Health Organisation (WHO). We are issuing informative guidelines to entrepreneurs and the private sector. All parties are happy that we cancelled Test and Go. As for the cancellation of Thailand Pass, we have to wait for the scientific committee of experts to consider.’
Minister of Finance expresses fear that Thailand’s foreign tourism sector may take longer to recover with tourism growth badly needed this year
Amid strengthening evidence that Thailand’s foreign tourism industry, once a world-beater, has been slower than its regional peers to recover from this emergency, the country’s Minister of Finance, Arkhom Termpittayapaisith, on Wednesday, warned that badly needed growth from the sector this year would only come gradually as he pointed to a 15% growth in exports for the opening three months of 2022.
‘Our export sector is strong, but tourism recovery will be gradual,’ he told a business forum in the kingdom’s capital.
The minister emphasised the government’s determination to practise stronger fiscal rectitude this year as global uncertainties increase and with a weakening baht against the US dollar.
The kingdom is targeting 1 million foreign tourists this year which could give it a growth rate of 3.5%.
Recent figures from the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) suggest the kingdom welcomed something like 700,000 visitors in the opening four months of the year.
Minister sees the goal now as controlling behaviour
Meanwhile, the public health minister’s steadfast position on face masks was made clear to reporters as he discussed his ministry’s response to a submission from business leaders to the government at the start of the week which calls for the reopening of nightlife and pubs in designated blue zones or key tourist provinces in the short term, from June 1st, ahead of a declaration of endemic status when it is assumed that this will happen in any event.
Minister Anutin left no one in any doubt that he thinks face masks should be worn by everyone in the kingdom including foreign tourists for some time to come even after the virus is declared endemic.
He has called on his officials to find a way to make sure that people comply with this policy as stringently as possible.
‘Right now, controlling the disease is not a problem but controlling people’s behaviour is. We still need to encourage people to put on face masks,’ he said.
Face mask mandates are being removed in western countries although the World Health Organisation (WHO) still recommends their use as a key protection
Face mask mandates have been rescinded in most western countries including flights in the United States and Europe as well as 90% of US counties.
However, the World Health Organisation (WHO) still recommends their use as part of a range of protective measures against the virus.
It comes as the government is understood to be formulating proposals for what it has termed ‘endemic sandbox’ initiatives on three islands where nightlife will be allowed to reopen initially while Minister Anutin has asked the Department of Disease Control to prepare plans for safety protocols within that industry which will apply, again, even after the declaration of endemic status.
New ‘endemic sandbox’ nightlife plan for islands
The islands in question are Ko Samui in Surat Thani province, Ko Chang in Trat province and Phuket.
The proposal for ‘endemic sandboxes’ on islands for nightlife activities was outlined by the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Public Health, on Thursday, Dr Kiattiphum Wongrajit.
‘We selected islands that are the country’s top tourist destinations first because their areas are limited and diseases can be easily controlled there,’ he explained.
Minster Anutin, at the same time, said he had asked Dr Opas Karnkawinpong of the key Department of Disease Control at his ministry to develop measures for nightlife venues to allow things to return to normal as much as possible while making it clear that the threat of the virus has not gone away.
Minster Anutin says the handling of the crisis has raised and improved Thailand’s image globally
The minister spoke of his satisfaction with the way the kingdom has handled the crisis and suggested that the country’s image had been improved by the current government’s efforts.
He said that Thailand was now taken more seriously on the international stage where the public health system has been recognised as well as this government’s success at preserving political stability.
He also praised the country’s improved connectivity within Southeast Asia as a key success.
‘During the two years that Thailand encountered Covid-19, we continued to develop transportation initiatives. Infrastructure, motorways and high-speed rail routes connecting neighbouring countries are still going forward. Now our structure is ready while we have also maintained the stability of Thai politics. Thailand has a sea exit, it is the centre of the region. Thailand has many strengths, public health, that’s where we can do great’.
Nightlife industry proposes reopening of the sector and shakeup with longer drinking hours in hotspots
The nightlife reopening proposals were submitted by 10 nightlife industry associations from Bangkok and other key tourist provinces requesting the reopening of pubs and nightlife in the 12 blue zone provinces and tourist hotspot areas in 16 other provinces from June 1st provided they have certified Safety and Health Administration (SHA) Plus accreditation.
However, the business trade groups are also looking for more than this from June 1st and have requested several further key concessions to give a fillip to an industry that is considered vital to foreign tourism and which has suffered enormously for the last two years.
This includes a request to abolish the 2 pm to 5 pm ban on alcohol sales introduced in Thailand in 1972 and at the same time, allow alcohol sales from 11 pm to 4 am in designated special zones, a move proposed by the Minister of Tourism and Sports, Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn in 2019 amid fears, even then, that tourist numbers were beginning to drop in Thailand because of controls targeting excesses in the nightlife industry introduced by the junta government after 2014.
The move was subsequently rejected by the cabinet where opposition to the proposals was seen as led by Minister of the Interior General Anupong Paochinda, a key member of the junta government which instigated stronger regulation of the industry after it took power in 2014.
Call to let the Emergency Decree lapse
The proposals for a full reopening of the nightlife trade in tourist areas, which are currently being reviewed by the government, were contained in a letter delivered to the Prime Minister’s Office on Monday.
The business associations are also calling for the Emergency Decree to be allowed to lapse from June 1st next and for it to be replaced instead by the use of provisions of the Communicable Disease Act 2015.
Sa-nga Ruangwatthanakul is the President of the Khao San Road Business Association which is coordinating the move.
‘Several tourist spots have the potential to be further developed into special zones for night-time leisure activities. They include Khao San Road, Soi Cowboy and Patpong Road in Bangkok, Walking Street in Pattaya, Bangla Road in Phuket, Hat Rin on Ko Phangan in Surat Thani and Nimmana Haeminda Road in Chiang Mai,’ he explained.