Oct 1 reopening up in air

People in Nonthaburi sit apart from one another distancing as they wait to be vaccinated with Sinopharm jabs. The municipality has made walk-in vaccinations available from Wednesday to Sunday for Nonthaburi residents. (Photo: Pattarapong Chatpattarasill)

The Public Health Ministry on Thursday addressed concerns raised by academics over the government’s plan to reopen the country to vaccinated foreign tourists starting next month.

The plan is in line with the pledge which Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha made in June to welcome vaccinated tourists within 120 days. However, some critics, including academics, have said the government may be acting too early.

Commenting on issues surrounding the plan, Deputy Prime Minister and Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul yesterday said medical experts and the Department of Disease Control (DDC) must decide whether the country is ready to reopen.

“The matter cannot be rushed as information on the pandemic situation and risks must be thoroughly addressed,” Mr Anutin said, adding the government is ready to lend its full support.

“We cannot order [the reopening] yet because we must investigate academic information and make an assessment.”

The degree of the severity of the Covid-19 situation in countries which prospective foreigners may depart from must be taken into account, he said, adding the DDC will make an assessment and present it for the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration’s (CCSA) consideration.

“If we are not ready, the reopening will not be possible,” Mr Anutin said. “We must look at several factors.”

Responding to criticism that an Oct 1 reopening may be premature, Mr Anutin said: “No one said the country will reopen on Oct 1.”

Minister of Tourism and Sports Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn said that as of Wednesday more than 70% of residents of Bangkok had been given their first Covid-19 vaccine shots, while 38% had received both jabs.

However, he said Bangkok governor Aswin Kwanmuang and his public health officials agreed most residents are still waiting for their second jabs and these cannot be administered to most of them in time for Oct 1.

The reopening timeline for Bangkok should be postponed from Oct 1 to Oct 15 as the capital is expected to have administered second shots to 70% of its residents by then, Mr Phiphat said.

All 50 districts in the capital will reopen to vaccinated foreign tourists after 70% of Bangkok residents receive their second shots, he said.

Mr Phiphat said personnel in the service industries and public transport drivers must receive two vaccine shots.

If they are not fully vaccinated, they can risk spreading the disease to foreign tourists who use their services, he said, adding the Tourism Authority of Thailand is asking operators of taxi cooperatives to issue vaccination certificates to fully vaccinated drivers.

Under the plan to reopen Bangkok to inoculated foreign tourists, all 50 districts will be reopened, including Din Daeng and Huai Khwang, which still have infection clusters, as the authorities are confident existing containment measures can cope, he said.

Mr Phiphat cited Phuket, which still has about 200 new daily infections, though there are no reports of local residents spreading the virus to foreign tourists there or vice versa.

He added that four provinces — Chiang Mai, Prachuap Khiri Khan, Phetchaburi and Chon Buri — will reopen to vaccinated foreign tourists on Oct 1 as planned.

Thira Woratanarat, an associate professor at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Medicine, posted a message on Facebook on Thursday, warning against the plan to reopen Thailand.

He said the number of new cases in Thailand remained high and foreign arrivals could bring the virus with them. Even if they are fully vaccinated, they can still contract the virus during their journey, he said.