Vaccination campaign begins in early morning jab event but hopes for more foreign tourists set back
100,000 doses have been reserved for foreign tourist provinces to be given to those working in the tourism and hospitality sector. However, it appears these will be primarily targeted at tourist quarantine facilities as part of the country’s quarantine infrastructure which has seen the scale of foreign tourism to Thailand decline by over 99.85% in previous months.
Thailand’s vaccination campaign got underway after an early morning event kicked off at 7.30 am in Nonthaburi province on Sunday when the Minister of Public Health, Anutin Charnvirakul, was the first to receive a Chinese vaccine after the Prime Minister pulled out at the last minute citing medical advice. However, hopes that the vaccine rollout will clear the way to a quick and unimpeded reopening to mass foreign tourism have been set back by comments from the Minister of Tourism and Sports, Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn who appears still to be focused on strengthening and exploring ways to boost visitor numbers through the country’s quarantine infrastructure.
Thailand’s vaccination programme officially got underway early on Sunday morning after the Minister of Public Health Anutin Charnvirakul received the jab at the Bamrasnaradura Infectious Diseases Institute in Nonthaburi province.
The event was overseen by Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha who initially was supposed to be the first person to receive a vaccine when complications became known on Saturday.
On Sunday, it was announced that the PM would not be receiving an initial dose, on medical advice.
Paperwork issue meant that the Prime Minister could not be administered the AstraZeneca vaccine as doses flown in from South Korea were not approved
It is understood the root of the problem was a paperwork issue relating to the shipment of 117,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine which were flown into Thailand alongside 200,000 doses of the Chinese CoronaVac or Sinovac vaccine on Wednesday at Suvarnabhumi airport amid great fanfare.
Although the National Vaccine Institute declined to divulge the origin of those jabs, reporters on the ground on Wednesday established that they were shipped from an AstraZeneca production partner in South Korea.
The Thai Food and Drug Administration has approved the AstraZeneca vaccine for use in Thailand but it is understood there are tight controls on the source of the product including quality checks.
Because of this, it is expected it will only be sometime in March before the 117,000 AstraZeneca vaccines can be used.
AstraZeneca confirmed they are working through the ‘quality assurance process’ with the government
This was confirmed in the last 24 hours by a statement from AstraZeneca itself which said: ‘AstraZeneca is working extremely hard for the Thai people, and actively collaborating with the Ministry of Public Health so that the vaccine can be delivered and be made available for use on the same day as completion of the Quality Assurance process.’
Prime Minister not allowed under medical advice to take the Chinese jab with doctors giving the green light to Minister of Public Health Anutin
The 66-year-old Prime Minister was scheduled to be administered the AstraZeneca jab as medical experts only recommend the Sinovac vaccine for those between 18 and 59 years of age.
It is understood 54-year-old Mr Anutin also received medical advice before he was given the jab at the medical facility followed by a number of top officials and ministers.
The vaccine was administered by Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Medicine’s Dr Yong Poovorawan, one of the country’s top virologists.
Mr Anutin also confirmed the situation to reporters during the event in Nonthaburi which kicked off at 7.30 am.
He appeared to suggest the issue was related to an absence of paperwork from AstraZeneca and a lack of approval from Thai authorities. ‘AstraZeneca has yet to submit documents and samples,’ he revealed. ‘Besides, the AstraZeneca vaccine has not been endorsed by the Medical Science Department.’
Health minister underlined that Thailand will follow science and medical advice first and foremost
He assured the public the government will be led at all times by its doctors and the best medical advice. ‘It doesn’t matter who gets the shots first. Safety prevails and doctors will make the decisions,’ he affirmed.
Afterwards, Prime Minister Prayut was upbeat about overcoming the virus and told the media that after taking the vaccine, his Minister of Public Health showed no adverse reaction or symptoms.
‘The government and medical personnel have overcome this crisis many times so far. This shows that Thailand can contain the spread of Covid-19 effectively,’ he said.
Among those who received the jab on Sunday morning was Deputy Minister of Public Health Sathit Pitutecha, Culture Minister Itthiphol Kunplome, Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Public Health Kiattiphum Wongrajit and the Director of the Department of Disease Control, Dr Opas Karnkawinpong.
Minister travelled to Samut Sakhon to oversee vaccination drive in Thailand’s hardest-hit area
After the event, it was reported Mr Anutin was on his way to Samut Sakhon province where the vaccination programme was getting underway along with 12 other provinces across 32 hospitals that will receive the first 200,000 doses.
This will then be extended to 18 provinces as up to 2 million Sinovac vaccines will be received by the end of April.
Priority in the initial stage of the vaccination drive is being given to those most underlying health conditions and those in provinces with a history of the disease and which are most at risk, as well as health care workers in the front line treating and testing patients.
Tourism and hospitality sector in 5 priority foreign tourism areas earmarked for 100,000 doses
However, eyebrows have been raised after it was reported the government is earmarking 100,000 doses to inoculate key hospitality sector workers in the foreign tourism industry in popular provinces with such tourists including Chiang Mai, Krabi, Phuket, Chonburi and the island of Ko Samui in Surat Thani province.
Minister dashes hopes of third-quarter reopening to vaccinated foreign tourists en masse
The Minister of Tourism and Sports Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn has confirmed this but, at the same time, cast doubts on a growing push from the economic sector to reopen Thailand to foreign tourists in the third quarter.
This is proposed by allowing vaccinated foreign tourists with proof or vaccine passports unhindered entry without quarantine followed by even greater freedom if the country’s vaccination programme, targeting 54% of all adults by the end of 2021, progresses well.
Minister Phiphat disclosed these jabs would be used primarily in alternative quarantine hotel facilities which are the backbone of Thailand’s quarantine infrastructure which has seen foreign tourism stifled by 99.85% in recent months.
‘We want to build confidence for tourists,’ the minister said.
Minister still focused on working within quarantine
Minister Phiphat appeared still to be focusing his efforts and requests to the government and cabinet on allowing more freedom and flexibility to the smaller number of visitors using this facility.
Most industry observers and foreign tourists have made it clear, in recent months, as have the figures for arrivals through Suvarnabhumi Airport that any quarantine requirement is an insuperable impediment to visitors looking for an economically priced two to three week getaway in Thailand after the pandemic begins to recede later this year.
He said he was making a proposal to the cabinet and the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) to allow quarantined foreign tourists to leave their rooms after three days of their quarantine period had elapsed.
Lukewarm to opening up to vaccinated tourists
He appeared lukewarm to the idea of allowing vaccinated foreign tourists with vaccine passports free access.
He revealed that no proposal had been made in this respect and that if there was to be one, it would only be made by the third quarter of 2021 at the earliest.
‘We will have to see how many Thais are vaccinated by the end of the year,’ he said. ‘And we will have to see whether the Department of Health can issue vaccine passports by then. If so, then we will submit the proposal.’