Gen Natthapol broke the news after a meeting at Phuket Provincial Hall yesterday (Aug 13), 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 Natthapol 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 Natthapol 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 Walairat 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 officers’ discretion. The arrivals will be tested for COVID two times during the 14 days’ quarantine,” Dr Walairat 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 Natthapol 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 traveling 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 Nattapol 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 Nattapol 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 practiced 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. The initial list included 54 countries. After several revisions that greatly reduced the list, the EU on Aug 7 revised the list further to just 11 countries, which were publicly listed on Tuesday (Aug 12).
“We can also promote and set up charter flights from the safe countries, where the charter flights are open for booking at least 90 days before departing,” Mr Bhumikitti said.
He also called for the government to require foreigners to register with just one app for “tracking”.
“I think it should be only one app. I hope the government can unite the apps into one,” he said.
In an interview after the meeting, Gen Natthaphol explained that he would report his findings to the CCSA in Bangkok.
Asked whether the travel bubbles will start on Sept 1, he said, “We have to consider that again. We may start by letting small groups of foreigners come, as I believe that it is easy for officers to control them.
“The pilot group must be less than 100 people in order to test our process and relevant officers’ readiness. We have to think of the feelings of those who are still concerned about the pandemic,” he added.
“The first pilot group can come next week in order to test the prepared process and officers, as at this stage Phuket already has alternative local state quarantine (ALSQ) places which are ready to welcome them. Hotel operators will be able to review their establishments and readiness to join the project,” Gen Natthaphol said.
“A pilot group, of around five people, must be cleared in Bangkok first and then brought to Phuket. Then officers will practice the processes that they have prepared.
“The pilot group could be international students who study in Phuket, as they have to come to Phuket anyway. After this meeting, I have to go back and see who else could be in our pilot group,” he added.
However, Gen Natthaphol maintained that at this stage any new arrivals must be cleared for entry to the country in Bangkok first.
“Before coming to Phuket, those people must be cleared by the CCSA. We will not let them come into direct contact with Phuket officers [without being checked first]. We will use our experience to check them first,” Gen Natthaphol assured.
Gen Natthaphol also repeated the government’s stance that travel bubbles will not be launched until the government is satisfied that the proper precautions are in place.
“If everyone agrees and together supports the travel bubbles, then we can make them happen fast. But if some people still disagree, it may take time by working step by step. I can’t say when it will be, it depends on Phuket people,” he said.
Gen Natthaphol also voiced his approval for the CCSA to set up an office in Phuket.
“I have already told the Phuket Governor that if the Phuket government wants to ease some measures, there must be officers from the central government coming here to give advice about easing the measures. Therefore, I think there should be a CCSA office in Phuket,” he said.
“I want to tell people that the CCSA is working hard and trying our best to solve people’s problems. I have to thank all Thais who are willing to follow the CCSA’s disease control measures,” Gen Natthaphol said, concluding the interview.