Minister defers to WHO on tourism vaccine passports despite its clearly stated opposition to them at this time
Vaccine passports, the key to reopening Thailand to foreign tourism, are a fast-rising issue on the political and economic agenda as the world’s airline and tourism economy seeks a way forward. This is running into opposition from public health officials and human rights activists. The conflict is happening on the world stage and locally in the kingdom, with plans afoot to hotwire a reopening of international skies to tourism on which the Thai economy so much depends.
The future of large swathes of Thailand’s foreign tourism industry and the country’s overall economic performance for 2021 may come down to a decision on vaccine passports, a proposed device currently being tested by the global airline body, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) but which is increasingly opposed by the World Health Organisation. The proposal is seen as critical to the future of the kingdom’s ฿2 trillion tourism industry.
A showdown may be looming between Thailand’s economic interests and multilateral, worldwide cooperation on public health after the Minister of Tourism and Sports, Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn disclosed on Monday he was awaiting a decision from the World Health Organisation on the way forward regarding vaccine passports.
The remarks by the minister come after the Tourism Authority of Thailand Governor, Yuthasak Supasorn, last week, confirmed that such vaccine passports would be in place for the third quarter of the year for less restricted entry into Thailand.
Speaking with Reuters he said: ‘We have to be fast because we want to start welcoming tourists in the third quarter.’
Economic officials working to save the faltering industry and avoid a catastrophic collapse
In recent weeks, the financial markets in Bangkok as well as officials with the Bank of Thailand and the Finance Ministry have been mulling a critically timed plan to refloat Thailand’s strategically important tourism industry sometime in the third quarter of 2021.
The unloading of indebted assets such as hotels, that have not been able to pay their way, into an asset warehouse and subsequent rental back to the owners, is dependent on the quick recovery to something akin to the pre-pandemic level of foreign tourism. This means the quarantine requirement must be lifted.
This is necessary, according to informed insiders and business sector leaders, to avoid a collapse of the country’s foreign tourism infrastructure.
Last week, the minister said he would only make such a proposal in the third quarter ‘at the earliest’
However, last week, the minister appeared to pour cold water on such an outcome when he said any proposal regarding vaccine passports would only be made to the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration in the third quarter of this year, at the earliest.
The minister instead was keen to emphasise discussions with the CCSA on relaxing 14-day quarantine rules for the current visitor traffic which amounts to less than 0.15% of 2019’s visitor levels.
DG of Thailand’s Department of Disease Control supports a WHO-led approach to vaccine passports
In early February, Dr Opas Karnkawinpong of the Department of Disease Control at the Ministry of Public Health suggested his department was reviewing the option of allowing tourists with vaccine passports to enter Thailand on a less restricted basis but made it clear that this can only be under the auspices of the World Health Organisation.
Dr Opas said the matter was one of international law and that any vaccine passport scheme overseen by the Ministry of Public Health must be approved by that body.
He said such passports have been in use worldwide for a long time for other infectious diseases with Thailand as a participating country.
However, the latest news from the World Health Organisation in Geneva is that it is against the concept of vaccine passports in the current environment.
The international body has even taken veiled swipes at transport organizations such as the International Air Transport Association (IATA) which is currently trialling a vaccine passport scheme called ‘Travel Pass’ designed to restart global aviation on its former, industrial scale.
World Health Organisation comes out firmly against vaccine passport waivers at least at this time
The WHO points out there are still ‘critical unknowns regarding the efficacy of vaccination in reducing transmission’ while it warns such a scheme should not be used by travellers to avoid health protection measures specifically such as quarantine.
‘WHO also recommends that people who are vaccinated should not be exempt from complying with other travel risk-reduction measures,’ the body said in early February while encouraging governments not to adopt invasive health measures in the first place.
‘National authorities should choose public health interventions that least infringe on individual freedom of movement,’ it advised.
Politically charged and divisive issue
The issue of vaccine passports is becoming a politically divisive one with NGOs and human rights activists warning the measures will further promote inequality.
The World Health Organisation itself is also voicing such concerns.
‘Individuals who do not have access to an authorized COVID-19 vaccine would be unfairly impeded in their freedom of movement if proof of vaccination status became a condition for entry to or exit from a country,’ the body declared.
Western countries actively pursuing vaccine passports despite rising opposition from the left and activists
Meanwhile, despite these concerns, authorities in the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union are now actively pursuing such measures.
Last week, a virtual EU Summit agreed that plans for such a regime should be drawn up and presented to the European Commission in March despite political opposition.
On Monday, it was reported the EU Commission chief, Ursula von der Leyen, had approved a vaccine passport plan which, it is hoped, the UK will also join.
Spanish Tourism Minister threatens to break with European Union to save his country’s tourism industry with vaccine passports and UK deal
However, in the last 24 hours, Spain, perhaps one of the countries most like Thailand in terms of its strategically important tourism industry, has set out its stall to act unilaterally on the issue if the European Union is slow to implement the measure.
The Spanish counterpart of Mr Phiphat, Tourism Minister, Fernando Valdés, is proposing a vaccine passport corridor between Spain and the United Kingdom, its biggest source of foreign tourists for the 2021 season.
‘Right now we have discussions with our colleagues in the UK,’ he revealed. ‘For us, the British market is our main market. But obviously, since we are a member of the European Union, the solutions have first to be part of the discussions in the EU.’
IATA ‘Travel pass’ is already being trialled
In the meantime, the International Air Transport Association’s ‘Travel Pass’ is being tested in conjunction with over a dozen leading airlines including Emirates.
The digital passport solution uses tested and accredited laboratories worldwide to provide reliable and standardized information on each traveller to participating countries in the scheme.
Thailand to achieve a critical mass of at least 5 million tourists in 2021 say economic heads plotting relaunch
The significance of Thailand joining such a scheme could be immense with the Minister Mr Phiphat, on Monday, accepting that it was the key to allowing 5 million foreign tourists into the kingdom in 2021.
This figure is crucial to stave off a complete collapse of the sector and can only be achieved with the removal of quarantine.
Last week, the Finance Ministry which is leading talks on the asset warehousing scheme to rescue large numbers of formerly profitable tourism-related concerns in Thailand, said it was holding firm on a prediction of 5 million visitors for 2021 while the Bank of Thailand’s Monetary Policy Committee also kept to its projection of 5.5 million visitors.
Prime Minister hints at support for vaccine passports
On Wednesday last, amid the fanfare with the arrival of the first vaccine doses at Suvarnabhumi airport, Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha also hinted he was open to a possible vaccine passport scheme to reopen the country.
He ordered a study on the proposal on Monday.
However, since the emergency began in March 2020, the government has had a track record of opting for public health as a priority over economic imperatives.
The entrenched opposition to the idea from the World Health Organisation will also be a factor.
Opposition at home from a public health hawk
Such plans also face stiff opposition at home.
Dr Thira Woratanarat of Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Medicine made his views quite clear last Wednesday. The top doctor said that reopening the kingdom based on vaccines is premature and dangerous.
Dr Thira is well known for his vociferous opposition to reopening Thailand to foreign tourists before the Covid-19 virus becomes extant.
‘Things are not safe yet, so people should strictly adhere to preventive measures and monitor their health,’ he cautioned the public.