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Despite rising Omicron infections, Thailand is forced to reconsider current restrictions

Tim Newton

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Another CCSA meeting this week as Thailand’s Covid overlords determine the next stage of the two-year long strategy to cope with the pandemic. Will they allow bars and nightlife to re-open? Will they reduce the testing requirements for overseas arrivals? Will they get rid of the current 5th day test and stay in an SHA+ hotel?

At least in this week’s lead up there is a bit more “chatter” from some of the leading voices in Thai government and health circles.

This week the public health minister and deputy PM Anutin Charnvirakul met with Malaysia’s AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes, who, echoing the mantra from all sides of the regional tourism industry, suggested removal of the second test requirement (under the Test & Go program travellers have to undergo a pre-paid PCR test in a pre-paid SHA+ registered hotel on Day 1 and Day 5 of their arrival).

Anutin responded by referring the ‘idea’ to the Department of Disease Control.

Mr. Fernandez claims that many tourists, specifically from Malaysia and Singapore, “are interested in coming to Thailand, but are discouraged by the onerous procedures involved”.

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For his part, Anutin reportedly admitted that “they (the arrival procedures) cause inconvenience for foreign travellers… there should be a balance between reviving the economy and the safety of the people”.

Thailand is now facing a critical decision-making period for its battered tourism industry, with regional competition swiftly reopening the tourist gates – specifically Singapore, Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia (but maybe delayed), Cambodia and Indonesia.

Singapore is easing Covid travel testing rules and launching new vaccinated travel lanes with the Philippines and Israel. The city-state is also starting VTLs next week with Qatar and the UAE and Saudi Arabia. A few weeks later the VTLs will kick off with the Philippines and Israel.

The Vietnamese government will fully reopen tourism to foreign travellers from March 15.

Under the current regulations, Vietnam will waive visa requirements for citizens of 13 countries… Japan, South Korea, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Russia, Belarus, UK, France, Germany, Spain and Italy. In addition, Vietnam and 88 other countries and territories have reached agreement on visa exemption.

Incoming tourists will be required to be fully vaccinated or certifications showing their recovery from Covid-19, a negative RAT result certificate within 24 hours (or 72 hours from a PCR test before departure). A one day quarantine requirement will remain effective.

Cambodia and Philippines are already ‘open’ with minimal requirements. Malaysia spoke about opening up at the start of March but appears to be delaying that date.

So will Thailand miss out on some of the pent up international demand for travel into South East Asian destinations?

The Thai government has shown over the past 2 years to be very risk-averse when it comes to Covid 19. The statistics would support the country’s tentative approach to any reopening and easing of restrictions, but now the pandemic has moved into a new phase where the latest Omicron variants, though aggressively transmissible, are also a lot less severe, or dangerous. Thailand’s fast-rising vaccination numbers are also helping keep hospitalisations and death numbers low in the latest ‘wave’.

That Thailand finds itself in the middle of rising numbers of Omicron infections, whilst also being forced to consider the re-opening of borders (with fewer restrictions) of its regional neighbours, will make this week’s considerations of the CSSA very difficult.

Arrivals and new applications for the Thailand Pass continue to fall below predicted numbers, another situation that will be weighing on the minds of the CCSA this week. Yesterday tourism operators sent an open letter to the Thai PM demanding that all restrictions be lifted by the start of March. That’s not going to happen – certainly not ALL restrictions. But with Songkran looming (the week around April 13), the pressure is on for some swift reduction in the current regime of paperwork, restrictions and curfews.

The government has also been forced to admit the shortcomings of its Thailand Pass system this week with many applicants questioning its security after receiving spam emails and hacked information.

Meanwhile, Thailand’s Disease Control Director-General Dr. Opas Karnkawinpong says that the Thai medical system is still able to accommodate symptomatic Covid patients, “whether it is the availability of hospital beds or medications”. He noted the swift rise of new infections but also said that “the numbers of new fatalities and severe cases have decreased”.

Today Thai health authorities announced 18,885 confirmed new infections and 13,588 “probable cases” (from Rapid Antigen Tests). 29 people have died of Covid-related deaths in the past 24 hours, 749 remain in ICU and 184 are being artificially respirated.

The next formal meetings of the CCSA will be held this Thursday and Friday.

 

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    Tim Newton has lived in Thailand since 2011. An Australian, he has worked in the media, principally radio and TV, for 42 years. He has won the Deutsche Welle Award for best radio talk program (public radio Australia), presented over 11,000 radio news bulletins, 3,950 in Thailand alone, hosted 1050 daily TV news programs and produced 2,100 videos, TV commercials and documentaries. He also reported for CNN, Deutsche Welle TV, CBC, Australia's ABC TV and Australian radio during the 2018 Cave Rescue and other major stories in Thailand. As founder of The Thaiger in 2016, Tim is the current English Content Manager for the company, based in their Bangkok HQ.

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