Covid-19 cases climb in Thailand as it opens up less-affected Phuket to tourists

Phuket opened its doors to hundreds of vaccinated tourists on July 2, 2021. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

BANGKOK - Even as Thailand reopens the island of Phuket to vaccinated tourists, the country continues to battle record infection and death rates that have prompted semi-lockdowns in hardest-hit provinces like Bangkok.

The number of cases nationwide has continued to climb in recent weeks, partially fuelled by the fast-spreading Delta variant and the country's slow vaccination drive.

On Saturday (July 3), Thailand reported 6,230 new infections - the highest level since it hit nearly 10,000 in mid-May - and 41 deaths.

Still, Thailand's third and worst Covid-19 wave has not hampered plans to gradually reopen to travellers. Last month, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha vowed to reopen Thailand to international tourism in 120 days, or by mid-October.

As a first step, Phuket reopened its doors to hundreds of vaccinated tourists on Thursday. The resort island has recorded single-digit daily cases in the past week, with seven new cases on Saturday.

Thailand, which is heavily reliant on tourism, lost about US$50 billion (S$67 billion) in tourism revenue last year as foreign arrivals plunged 83 per cent to 6.7 million, from a record 39.9 million in 2019.

"(When) we take into consideration the economic needs of people, the time has now come for us to take that calculated risk. The priorities for our country must now advance to the next level," Mr Prayut said.

Less than two weeks after this October deadline was set, surging infection numbers forced the authorities to impose a partial lockdown in Bangkok and five surrounding provinces from Monday (June 28). Dining in is banned, shopping malls must close by 9pm, and activities involving more than 20 people are not allowed.

The month-long measures also shut construction sites and sealed off workers' camps to contain the multiple clusters that have emerged there.

Thailand has recorded a total of more than 270,000 cases and over 2,100 deaths.

It is facing an overwhelmed healthcare system and a shortage of vaccines as the authorities race to beef up its army of hospital workers and intensive care unit (ICU) beds, as well as procure more shots.

Officials said on Friday that Thailand will speed up inoculations of elderly and medically vulnerable people, to reduce the number of Covid-19 patients in critical condition. This group has a combined population of 17 million.

Currently, only 0.7 per cent, or 83,000, of those over age 60 and 3.1 per cent of people with health conditions have received two doses of the vaccine.

So far, 2.9 million of Thailand's more than 66 million people are fully vaccinated.

The mass vaccination drive, which had earlier targeted to administer 10 million doses monthly from June, relies heavily on the country's locally produced AstraZeneca vaccine. However, there have been production and distribution delays.

Meanwhile, to free up beds at Bangkok's hospitals, the Public Health Ministry said last month that it would allow asymptomatic Covid-19 patients to isolate at home, instead of mandatory hospitalisation like before.

More resources are also being channelled to Bangkok's overwhelmed healthcare system. The authorities said they would be increasing the number of hospital beds and mobilising newly graduated doctors from several provinces to make up for the manpower shortage in the capital.

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