The desperate need to get the economy back on track is leaving the government no choice but to work toward a full-scale reopening of the country amid lingering fear of a post-Songkran festival spike in Covid-19 cases, according to experts.
Former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said the government is under immense pressure to restore the pandemic-battered economy.
The government has no choice but to reopen the country or try to return it to normalcy sooner rather than later as most other nations are doing, he said.
Meanwhile, the government has been saying the pandemic will soon be relegated to an endemic as caseloads and fatalities drop. "But I'm worried the post-Songkran festival numbers will probably not go down," Mr Abhisit said.
The authorities should be on the offensive in getting people to vaccinate in a more systematic manner, he said.
Numbers show that only about 30% of people aged 60 years and over have received booster shots. Mr Abhisit's advice is for the government to use the vaccination data available via the Mor Prom app to design vaccination campaigns and provide jabs to high-risk groups in their communities.
The government also should examine the Covid-19 hospitalisation figures by explaining how many patients suffered lung infections and required life support as well as their vaccination status and age, he said.
The information would underscore the need to acquire first and second booster shots.
Mr Abhisit said people also need to be warned not to let down their guard even as the country eases Covid restrictions.
The term "new normal" must be more clearly defined to create a healthy and safe environment via measures such as barring unvaccinated people from certain public spaces including restaurants.
The cycle of infections must be short-circuited if the pandemic is to end, he said.
Compared to Songkran last year, anti-Covid restrictions are more relaxed and people are taking fewer precautions, he said.
The former premier said the government must mitigate the economic damage caused by two years of the pandemic which has resulted in a rise in household debt and businesses struggling to stay afloat.
The issue was no longer confined to creditors and debtors as many medium and small-scale businesses now run the risk of going under or being taken over by larger companies.
A state fund should be created to restructure the debts of affected businesses and recapitalise them, according to Mr Abhisit.
Thiravat Hemachudha, director of the Centre for Emerging Health Sciences' Faculty of Medicine at Chulalongkorn University, agreed that economic pressures are driving the government to reopen the country's borders.
However, rampant infections are making it easier for new strains of the virus to develop, Dr Thiravat said.
"It shows that immunity acquired from natural infections, whether from the Delta or Omicron variant, is not a protection against new strains," he said, explaining that the body needs some time to develop immunity and resistance to the strains.
Dr Thiravat said while vaccines can prevent death and hospitalisation, it does little to keep people from transmitting the virus to others.
People aged 60 and over and those with underlying illnesses are most vulnerable, Dr Thiravat said.
Older people, even after they have been given a booster shot, may not develop as much immunity as those who are younger. He said many were reluctant to be administered the vaccine or booster jabs out of concern for the side effects.
Dr Thiravat earlier suggested the vaccine be administered intradermally rather than the common intramuscular method. Studies confirmed that intradermal jabs caused fewer side effects and they are now being offered at the vaccination centre in Bang Sue Grand Station and several hospitals.
Intradermal vaccinations, which also use less vaccine per injection, will help ease concerns among the elderly and convince them to get the jabs, he said.
The government should prepare measures to ensure people who return from the Songkran festival sick with Covid-19 have equal and unrestricted access to medicine, Dr Thiravat said.
Covid-19 sufferers, he said, should take the fah talai jon (kariyat) medicine immediately upon discovering they have contracted the virus and keep taking it for five days before switching to the anti-viral favipiravir. He said fah talai jon was effective in easing the symptoms.
Chaiwat Chuenkosum, deputy interior permanent secretary, said it was highly likely that the full-scale reopening of the country would go ahead after Songkran as measures have been devised and people have cooperated well in attempting to keep the virus under control.
After the festival ends, the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) must assess caseloads, the rate of hospitalisation and the number of Covid-19 fatalities, he said.
The Interior Ministry has told provincial governors to launch measures such as requiring people returning home for Songkran to be vaccinated and undergo an ATK test before reuniting with their families.
Members of families waiting for them in the provinces should also be inoculated and have the ATK test after their relatives return from the holidays.
Mr Chaiwat said guidelines for organising Songkran activities nationwide in the Covid-safe setting include basic health screening at public events, social distancing practices that permit no more than four people within a square metre, and the wearing of face masks at all times.
Activities where people can't wear masks, such as water throwing and foam parties, are banned.
Large events are subject to tight supervision from the communicable disease control office in the provinces. About 5,000 large Songkran celebratory events have been granted permission to organise nationwide. The sale and consumption of alcohol is also banned during public celebrations.