Thailand announces more coronavirus curbs after jump in cases

Health workers from Zendai organisation in personal protective equipment (PPE) take swab samples from people for a rapid antigen test amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Bangkok, Thailand, January 5, 2022. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

BANGKOK, Jan 7 (Reuters) - Thailand will extend the suspension of its quarantine waiver programme and bring in new restrictions after a jump in new coronavirus cases linked to the Omicron variant, the government's COVID-19 taskforce said on Friday.

New applications for Thailand's "Test & Go" quarantine waiver scheme will not be approved until further notice to stem the increase of coronavirus infections, said Taweesin Visanuyothin, the spokesman of the taskforce.

But existing applicants can still enter Thailand without quarantine until Jan. 15, he said.

"We can still make changes if the situation improves, but for now we have to learn more about Omicron," Taweesin said.

Due to concerns over Omicron, Thailand had halted the waiver programme since Dec. 22 and also most of its "sandbox" schemes, which requires visitors to remain in a specific location for seven days but allows them free movement during their stay, except for the resort island of Phuket.

But from Jan. 11, Thailand will allow quarantine-free entry into the country via the previously suspended sandbox schemes of Samui Plus, Phang Nga, and Krabi, Taweesin said.

Thailand would also lift on Jan. 11 an entry ban on people travelling from eight African countries it had designated as high-risk.

To curb local virus transmissions, alcohol consumption in restaurants will be halted after 9 p.m. in eight provinces including the capital Bangkok from Sunday, and banned in the country's other 69 provinces, Taweesin said.

"Social drinking is the cause of the virus spread. Measures to restrict this will help curb the spread," he said.

Thailand reported 7,526 cases of the coronavirus on Friday, the highest number since early November and more than double the number on Jan. 1.

"If we just let it happen, cases could reach 30,000 a day by the end of the month," said Taweesin.

The Southeast Asian country has vaccinated about 69.5% of an estimated 72 million people living in the country with two doses, but only 11.5% have received third shots.

Thailand's government said it planned to inoculate 9.3 million people this month, including with third and fourth shots.

The country also approved a plan on Friday to buy 50,000 courses of Pfizer's (PFE.N) oral COVID-19 antiviral pills Paxlovid.

Reporting by Patpicha Tanakasempipat and Panarat Thepgumpanat Editing by Ed Davies and Sanjeev Miglani

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