Thailand rethinks vaccine plan

Economic impact: Two men lie on benches in front of a closed restaurant in Bangkok. Tourism-reliant Thailand’s plan to reopen its borders hinges on achieving herd immunity. — AFP

BANGKOK: Thailand is reworking its vaccine strategy as a month-long soft lockdown to contain its worst wave of Covid-19 infections deepens an economic crisis and risks plans for reopening the crucial tourism industry.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha will meet today with industry groups, including the Thai Chamber of Commerce and the Tourism Council of Thailand, to discuss ways to accelerate a vaccine rollout that so far has reached less than 1% of the population.

The meeting may outline the private sector’s role in securing vaccines for its employees, after that was initially ruled out in a national plan to vaccinate half the population by the end of the year.

Prayuth is under pressure to tighten restrictions on businesses and travel as an outbreak that began from nightlife venues in Bangkok overwhelms hospitals and healthcare facilities.

The flare-up has forced the government to set up field hospitals and convert hotels into treatment facilities amid calls for accelerated vaccinations and a lockdown of at least the capital city.

Thailand’s bet on AstraZeneca Plc to meet the bulk of its vaccine needs, a move slammed by the opposition as a one-horse bet, is faltering, with officials now scrambling for supply from makers including Pfizer Inc, Russia’s Gamaleya Institute and Johnson & Johnson.

While neighbours such as Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam haven’t fared much better in their vaccine rollouts, tourism-reliant Thailand’s plan to reopen its borders hinges on achieving herd immunity.

“The key to exit from this crisis is vaccines, ” said Somprawin Manprasert, chief economist at Bangkok-based Bank of Ayudhya Pcl’s research unit. “Slow vaccination will delay the reopening and cause further damage to the economy.”

Until four months ago, Thailand had been relatively successful at containing the outbreak. Since mid-December, however, the country has seen two waves of outbreaks, the second one worse than the first. Businesses have been demanding a faster vaccine rollout, with the private sector funding a portion of the cost.

The tourism industry in Phuket, the nation’s most famous resort island, is pushing ahead with a plan to inoculate 70% of the local population by July so it can welcome back vaccinated tourists without requiring a quarantine. Business groups have been pushing for more vaccines from the government as the crisis devastates jobs and the economy.

The need to reopen for tourism stems from mounting unemployment and the threat to a nascent recovery that’s dependent on billions of dollars in revenue from foreign visitors.

Thailand’s central bank has flagged a risk to its 3% economic growth forecast for this year and a number of economists have already trimmed estimates, citing the economic hit from the latest outbreak.

Prayuth has promised to inject an additional US$12bil (RM49.15bil) to aid the economy. But continued stimulus measures will widen the fiscal deficit, and Moody’s Investors Service has said continued restrictions against the virus could constrain the recovery and are a credit negative. — Bloomberg

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