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Politics

Thai cabinet becomes COVID hot spot as ministers quarantine

Japanese ambassador also infected as contagious UK variant spreads in kingdom

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has tested negative for coronavirus but the transport minister has fallen ill with the disease and several are now in quarantine.     © Reuters

BANGKOK -- Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha's cabinet is becoming the latest hot spot of Thailand's third wave of COVID-19 infections after a minister fell ill with the virus.

Transport Minister Saksayam Chidchob tested positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday, after developing a fever and being admitted to a hospital in Buriram, roughly 300 kilometers northeast of Bangkok.

His infection could pose a serious threat to the kingdom's administrative and policymaking capability. The minister is the secretary-general of Bhumjaithai Party, the second largest party in the ruling coalition. The party hosted a merit-making ceremony on Tuesday when the country celebrated Chakri Memorial Day, a national holiday, that commemorates the establishment of the current monarchy.

Party leader and Deputy Prime Minister and Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul is on a 14-day self-quarantine from Wednesday. All members of the party will be absent from parliamentary sessions until they have tested negative for COVID.

Prayuth revealed that the cabinet was forced to hold its regular weekly meeting on Wednesday over video conference instead of in person. The prime minister has taken a test that proved negative.

Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam, Tourism and Sport Minister Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn, Agriculture and Cooperatives Minister Chalermchai Sri-on, and Education Minister Trinuch Thienthong are on leave, according to a government source. They had all had close contact with Saksayam the transport minister.

Thailand is facing another wave of infections as 334 new cases were reported on Wednesday, bringing the country total to 29,905. Clusters were found in Bangkok nightlife establishments which led to the closure of 196 entertainment venues in the Klongtoey, Wattana, and Bangkae districts until April 19.

Thailand reported on Wednesday its first domestic transmission of a highly contagious variant of the coronavirus first found in Britain, Reuters cited Yong Poovorawan, a senior virus expert at Chulalongkorn University, as saying.

The Centre of COVID-19 Situation Administration has proposed that Bangkok and its surrounding provinces such as Pathumthani, Nonthaburi, Samutprakan, and Nakhonpathom be designated high-risk areas. The Ministry of Public Health and the Ministry of Interior will discuss the proposed classification changes over the next two days.

The diplomatic circle has also been hit in this wave. Japanese ambassador to Thailand Kazuya Nashida tested positive for coronavirus on Saturday, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan. On March 25, the ambassador visited a nightclub called Krystal where he most likely caught the virus, the embassy said.

Thais will be on a six-day national holiday from Saturday to celebrate the Thai new year, known as Songkran. There are worries that domestic travel could spread the disease to rural areas. 

This wave of infections could hurt Thailand's ambitious plans to open up to foreign tourism, a key pillar of the economy. From this month, the country had shortened the quarantine requirement for travelers from 14 days to 10 days. Those who have been vaccinated only need to isolate for seven days.

The government is also conducting a sandbox experiment for quarantine-free stays for vaccinated visitors to the island of Phuket from July. If this is successful, the kingdom plans to expand it nationwide.

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