The COVID-19 Sandbox Plan in Phuket Could Be Suspended Soon

Thailand’s first tourism hotspot to waive quarantine for vaccinated foreign visitors is facing a spike in COVID-19 cases, which could endanger the experiment seen as a model for other tourism-dependent nations to open their borders.
During the week ending July 27, 2921, the resort island reported 125 new Covid-19 cases, higher than the government’s threshold of 90 cases that could trigger a temporary suspension of the program. Local authorities closed public schools and shopping malls and banned gatherings of more than 100 people recently in an effort to stop the spread of the virus.
Local residents accounted for the majority of new infections, and all high-risk contacts on the island have been isolated to prevent further spread, officials said. Since the so-called Phuket Sandbox was launched on July 1, 2021, only 26 vaccinated visitors have tested positive for the virus out of more than 11,800.
Covid resurgence in Phuket mirrors the situation elsewhere in Thailand and Southeast Asia, where authorities are struggling to contain the outbreak fuelled by the more contagious delta variant. A setback to the quarantine-free travel in Phuket could jeopardize the government’s plan to expand the model to more islands and beach resorts to save the tourism industry.
As authorities are watching for more signs of infection spread, it may still be too early to suspend the Phuket model. Official data show that 70% of Phuket’s population is fully immunized, compared to about 5% nationally.
“We are entering a tightening mode and reducing local activities on the island, but we have several circuit breakers in place before the reopening program is suspended,” said Thaneth Tantipiriyakij, president of the Tourism Council of Phuket. Currently, we are assessing the situation day-by-day and week-by-week with the surge in infections.
After the emergence of the third wave of Covid infections in early April, the country has seen an unprecedented surge of Covid infections and deaths. Thailand’s key economic centers, including Bangkok, have been subjected to strict restrictions on inter-provincial travel and on most business activities.
In addition to the 90 weekly-case limit, other triggers for Phuket Sandbox suspension include detection of infections in all three districts on the island or more than six sub-districts; identification of more than three clusters; and the use of 80% of hospital capacity.
According to Thaneth, authorities will restrict travel routes or impose a temporary ban on tourists leaving hotels before considering a full suspension. In the coming days, officials will review the situation and decide if additional tightening measures are needed, he said.

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