BANGKOK: Thailand’s popular resort island Phuket is pushing for a “special channel” that would allow it to procure COVID-19 vaccines through its local administration and the private sector, as a new wave of cases could delay its reopening plan.
It was earlier announced that international tourists would be able to visit the island province in southern Thailand from Jul 1, without the need for quarantine if they have been vaccinated.
However, the plan risks being derailed by the latest wave of outbreaks, which has infected more than 47,000 people nationwide since April and heightened the need for COVID-19 vaccine in the country.
In a statement, Phuket Tourist Association president Bhummikitti Ruktaengam noted that the new wave of infections has resulted in vaccines originally allocated for Phuket being diverted to other areas as a necessary step to control the spread.
“The people of Phuket understand such necessity,” he said on Apr 29.
“But at the same time, the previously announced Phuket tourism sandbox strategy has become an important context for Thailand. So, we’d like the government to approve a special channel for Phuket to procure vaccine for its own people in order to reopen for tourists as planned,” he added.
“Phuket sandbox” is a tourism model that requires international visitors to complete their COVID-19 vaccination in their country and produce proof upon arrival in Phuket from July. They will also have to produce a certificate showing negative COVID-19 test results obtained before flying to Thailand and download mobile application ThailandPlus for contact tracing purposes.
The strategy was proposed by Phuket’s private sector after nearly a year of economic woes caused by COVID-19. It was announced by the Center for Economic Situation Administration in March as part of the government’s efforts to boost the economy.
For the strategy to work effectively, Phuket needs to achieve herd immunity through mass vaccination. This means it has to inoculate 70 per cent of its residents against the coronavirus before the planned reopening.
The Phuket Provincial Administration earlier set a target of procuring 933,174 doses of vaccine from the government for 466,587 people, including local residents and migrant workers. However, there are concerns the vaccination plan may not be completed in time as new clusters keep emerging in different parts of the country and the need for the vaccine grows.
“The new wave of transmission has affected the confidence about the implementation of the plan,” said Thanusak Phungdet, president of the Phuket Chamber of Commerce.
Nevertheless, he added, Phuket’s private sector is determined to press on with the mission and has been in touch with local administrative organisations about vaccine procurement.
“We have started to coordinate with vaccine companies overseas as well as their representatives in Thailand to obtain information and speed up the process of vaccine procurement,” Thanusak said in a statement.
“If the government gives the green light and open a special channel for Phuket, we’ll be able to follow the plan promptly.”
Himaphan Boutique Resort near Phuket’s Nai Yang beach told CNA: “We’re worried about tourism. If private sector could increase vaccine procurement itself, this would certainly benefit tourism.”
Phuket heavily relies on international tourists. In 2019, they made up 73 per cent of the total of 14.55 million visitors, based on data from the Phuket Provincial Statistical Office. This means when the Thai government banned international commercial flights in April last year to control the pandemic, Phuket’s economy was hit hard.
The island’s pristine beaches are now mostly empty. Many restaurants and bars are shut while hotels and resorts suffer from a drop in bookings.
From May 1, Phuket and 44 other provinces were categorised as “maximum controlled areas”, where certain activities are prohibited and some venues have been forced to close. For instance, events with more than 50 attendees are not allowed and dining-in at eateries can only take place until 9pm.
The province has reported 485 infections of coronavirus since Apr 1, according to the Center for COVID-19 Situation Administration (CCSA).
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The latest wave of COVID-19 outbreaks in Thailand started early last month, when clusters of infections were found in nightclubs, parties and concerts before spreading across the country.
On Thursday (May 6), CCSA reported 1,911 new cases and 18 deaths, bringing the total numbers of infections and casualties to 76,811 and 336 respectively.
Following the recent spikes in cases, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha pushed for more procurement of COVID-19 vaccines with an aim to inoculate 70 per cent of the population, or about 50 million people within this year.
“We need 100 million doses of vaccine in total. Right now, Thailand has already secured 63 million doses as planned. These include 61 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which will be produced in Thailand. They will start to be delivered in June,” Prayut said after a cabinet meeting on Wednesday.
The country is scheduled to receive 3.5 million doses of the Sinovac vaccine from China this month for medical personnel and those in areas at risk, he added.
“The Public Health Ministry also proposed more vaccine procurement plans, including 5 million to 20 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and 5 million to 10 million doses from each of the Sputnik V, Sinovac and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, not to mention others that would be registered in the future,” the prime minister said.
“We’ve set a target to administer 15 million doses of the vaccine each month in order to win this COVID-19 war.”
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Since February, CCSA reported that about 1.16 million people in Thailand have been given their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and more than 430,000 people have received the second.
According to its spokesperson Taweesin Wisanuyothin, the Public Health Ministry plans to speed up the vaccination in order to inoculate more people against coronavirus.
In Phuket, Bhummikitti said 200,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have already been administered to the residents.
“Nobody is safe from COVID-19 until all Thais are safe. The vaccine is the most obvious answer right now. Phuket wants to see Thailand move forward and is ready to be in the forefront to mobilise the country,” he said.
“Phuket will not lay down any condition but would like to ask for understanding and approval for it to promptly manage the vaccine with its own capabilities.”
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story said that Thailand is scheduled to receive 35 million doses of the Sinovac vaccine from China this month for medical personnel and those in areas at risk. That is incorrect. Thailand is scheduled to receive 3.5 million doses of the vaccine. We apologise for the error.