Royal Thai Army Deputy Commander-in-Chief Gen Natthapol Nakpanit, who also serves as the chairman of the ad hoc committee to consider easing the enforcement of measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, under Centre for COVID-19 Situation Administration (CCSA), has said that travel bubbles to Phuket may begin as early as the beginning of next month with a small test group arriving via Bangkok.
Gen Nakpanit broke the news after a meeting at Phuket Provincial Hall yesterday (13th August), where he was joined by Dr Walairat Chaifoo, Director of the Division of Epidemiology at the Ministry of Public Health’s Department of Disease Control.
The pair were in Phuket to hear first hand from people on the island the current state of Phuket’s readiness to receive tourists.
Gen Nakpanit pointed out that Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha was specifically concerned about Phuket’s readiness and had tasked him with coming to Phuket personally in order to obtain clear information.
In his address to the meeting, attended by Phuket Governor Narong Woonciew and leading officials and business figures, Gen Nakpanit explained that to open Phuket to travel bubbles, whereby tourists abide by strict rules in order to limit their exposure to the local population, the most important aspect was that Phuket International airport applied the same health practices as Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok.
However, he added, “Those coming from abroad must be checked at places recognised as state quarantine venues, not at the airport, in order to prevent the congestion.”
Dr Chaifoo explained that the airport must have special areas designated for such arrivals and they must be picked up and directly taken to their nominated state quarantine venues.
“The vehicles must have partitions between drivers and passengers,” she said.
“At the quarantine venues, the tourists will be allowed to stay only one person per room, unless they come as a family. That will be up to officers’ discretion. The arrivals will be tested for COVID two times during the 14 days’ quarantine,” Dr Chaifoo added.
“The areas where they can go must be limited and clearly separated from other tourists so that hotels can also be open to receive other guests,” she said.
Gen Nakpanit also clearly pointed out that in order for travel bubbles to Phuket to be approved that screening of Thais and foreigners arriving at the airport must be in place, and the province must have an adequate system to quickly identify people infected with COVID-19.
Effective and sufficient Alternative Local State Quarantine (ALSQ) venues must be available and approved by the Ministry of Public Health, and tourism areas where the visitors may visit must be clearly defined so that anti-COVID-19 measures can be enforced.
“They must be relatively closed areas where access is limited to certain areas,” he said. “Once we can evaluate the effectiveness of the initial areas, we can then expand the practices to other areas.
“There must be strict control on the observation of persons travelling in and out of Phuket both by land and water for the welfare of Phuket residents as well,” he added.
Also of key importance is that provincial authorities have the medical personnel and equipment ready in case a new outbreak occurs.
“We may consider establishing a fund to prepare for a possible outbreak to provide some assurance to the Phuket residents concerned,” Gen Nakpanit added.
“Regarding the relaxation of COVID-19 protection measures to allow foreigners, especially tourists, to come to Phuket, when it can be done, it is important that the government is ready. The private sector has to be ready and the public sector has to be ready. If Phuket is not ready, this will not be allowed,” Gen Nakpanit said clearly.
Phuket Public Health Office (PPHO) Chief Thanit Sermkaew explained that the Phuket health office already has a team to take care of the people coming from abroad.
He also pointed out that Phuket already had hotels that had applied to be approved as alternative local state quarantine (ALSQ) establishments.
“At this stage, 51 hotels have applied to be approved as ALSQ places, but so far only two have been approved,” he said.
Further, Phuket International Airport General Manager Thanee Chuangchoo said that he will send a team to learn the state quarantine processes practised at Suvarnabhumi airport.
The Chamber of Commerce President Thanusak Phungdet explained that most people in Phuket agreed with re-opening to welcome foreigners, but were concerned about the state quarantine requirements.
“Private businesses should unite together to launch a campaign to promote and create trust among local people that Phuket is prepared to receive foreign tourists,” he said.
Bhumikitti Ruktaengam, President of the Phuket Tourist Association, pointed out that the government could restrict tourist arrivals to only come from countries that are deemed “safe”.
“We select them according to their infection rate. We can choose people from the countries which are safe from COVID-19, such as Sweden, South Korea, Taiwan, etc,” he said.
Of note, state news agency NNT yesterday published its recognition that Thailand had remained on the EU Council’s list of epidemiologically safe third-countries – the list of non-EU/EEA countries that are considered safe amid the coronavirus pandemic due to their low rates of infections.
The list is revised every two weeks.