Thailand Ramps Up Vaccine Rollout as Phuket Reopening Nears
(Bloomberg) -- Thailand began a mass vaccination drive to quell the worst Covid-19 outbreak to date, with a target of inoculating 70% of its residents before the end of this year to prepare the tourism-reliant nation for a wider reopening.
The Southeast Asian nation plans to administer about 500,000 shots per day starting Monday, compared to about 100,000 daily average over the past week, according to health ministry officials. The target population in the initial phase of the nationwide rollout include residents in Bangkok, the epicenter of the current outbreak, and those in Phuket, which is scheduled to test the reopening for vaccinated tourists from July 1, they said.
The ramp-up in vaccine rollout comes amid the country’s worst wave of infections that began in April, causing a sixfold jump in cases and a surge in Covid deaths. New clusters of infections have also emerged in its factories in recent weeks, threatening the nation’s manufacturing and exports sector, a key economic engine.
The success of the inoculation drive is seen as key to reviving Thailand’s tourism sector and in safeguarding the manufacturing industry from infections -- two key drivers of Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy. The gross domestic product has contracted for five straight quarters, a trend that’s likely to continue in the April-June period given the raging outbreak.
“Vaccines are crucial for economic recovery, and prioritizing the rollout is also important because different groups can have different impacts on the economy,” said Somprawin Manprasert, chief economist at Bangkok-based Bank of Ayudhya Pcl’s research unit. By focusing on key sectors like manufacturing, the vaccination program can help prevent disruptions to economic activities, he said.
Thailand’s pace of vaccine rollout over the past three months was restricted by limited supplies from Sinovac Biotech Ltd. and AstraZeneca Plc. To date, about 4.2 million doses of shots have been administered, covering about 3% of the population.
The delivery of millions of shots each month from June will allow the government to expand the inoculation program, which has an official target of administering 100 million shots, covering 70% of the country’s residents, by December.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha said on Monday everyone who wants to be vaccinated will be able to get the shots. “There are more people registered than the number of vaccines available, so right now we have to prioritize,” he said, adding the government is constantly adjusting its plan with the evolving situations.
About 60% of the target population on the southern resort island of Phuket have already received their first shot, the highest rate in Thailand. The island province is preparing to test the nation’s first tourism reopening for vaccinated visitors, who will be allowed to skip the mandatory two-week quarantine to travel around the country’s biggest island.
The government wants to revive the tourism sector that used to contribute to about one-fifth of the economy pre-pandemic after more than a year of travel restrictions decimated jobs and businesses. It plans to expand the reopening plan to other tourist hotspots, including Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Koh Samui in October if the Phuket plan succeeds. The entire country could then reopen for vaccinated tourists from January next year.
Still, Thailand’s economy may not return to pre-pandemic growth levels until early 2023, according to the nation’s central bank. Its tourism sector may not fully recover until 2026, the nation’s top planning agency estimates.
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.