BANGKOK — PM Prayut Chan-o-cha on Tuesday apologized to the public for the government’s failure to enforce quarantine rules in Rayong province, where a coronavirus patient was permitted to leave his hotel and visit a shopping mall.
Although Prayut said he is taking responsibility for the incident, no legal action was taken against him or the coronavirus response center, of which he serves as the chairman. The Prime Minister described the case as “unprecedented” and ordered relevant authorities to reevaluate quarantine measures.
“It shouldn’t have happened,” Prayut said. “It happened because of those who didn’t respect the rules and those who blamed each other. Therefore, myself as the director of the government’s crisis response center will take responsibility for this.”
An Egyptian airman who later tested positive for the coronavirus and his colleagues were allowed to leave their quarantine hotel last week for shopping trips in Rayong province.
Nearly 400 people may have come in close contact with the patient, officials said, raising fears that Thailand’s record of nearly two months without local coronavirus transmission might soon come to an end.
It is unclear what the 31 pilots from the Egyptian Air Force were doing in Thailand. The delegates also flew to Chengdu, China, before returning to their hotel in Rayong province.
In a contrast to the government’s harsh enforcement of pandemic health measures on members of the public, no charge was filed against any government or military officials responsible for the Egyptian pilots’ arrivals and quarantine.
Taweesin Visanuyothin, the spokesman of the Center for COVID-19 Situation Administration, previously said during Monday’s news conference that no one was to be blamed for the incident since “it was not a mistake.”
“We will not lay the blame on anyone since they have been authorized to do so, it was not a mistake,” Taweesin said. “This incident will tell us how to improve our weak points.”
But the spokesman made a U-turn on Tuesday after criticism on social media and offered his apology.
“We can’t deny responsibility,” Taweesin said. “We apologize and appreciate everyone for their cooperation.”
The Egyptian embassy in Bangkok also expressed regret for the incident, foreign ministry spokesman Cherdkiat Atthakor said. He also said that there might have been a communication issue over the video showing an airman refusing to take a virus test.
“It was a routine military cooperation,” Cherdkiat said Tuesday. “The Egyptian embassy has expressed regret over the incident and they are ready to cooperate with Thai authorities to find a solution.”
Army chief Apirat Kongsompong, who was accused by netizens of allowing the Egyptian military airmen to enter the country, denied any involvement. The general said he was a victim of unfounded rumors.
“I’m always to blame,” military-linked news sources quoted Gen. Apirat as saying. “The army is not involved with it, and the [Egyptian aircrews] are not the guest of the army.”
Suspicion was also raised at the fact that the Egyptian group landed on the navy-run U-Tapao Airport in Rayong rather than the main entry point of Suvarnabhumi Airport.
U-Tapao director Kritchaphon Rianglekjamnong said the Egyptian Air Force’s transport plane was approved by the government for a refueling stop, and the crew went through appropriate checkpoints upon arrival.
“Health and immigration officials at the airport found no one to be suspicious of contacting the virus, so our work was done and they were sent to their accommodation,” Vice Adm. Kritchaphon said. “Rayong provincial public health office was responsible for them after that.”
Chief of provincial public health office Sunthorn Rheanpumikankit, in turn, did not explain to reporters how the crews were allowed to walk out of their accommodation without the officials’ knowledge.
He also told reporters that the group did not go to any “high-risk” venues.
“We know that they went outside, we are looking through CCTV footage to see where they went,” Sunthorn said. “But they didn’t go to high-risk places such as boxing stadiums.”
D Varee Diva Central Rayong Hotel, where the Egyptians stayed from July 9 to 11, announced that it will be closed until further notice for public safety, while Laem Thong Department Store, which was visited by the infected airman on July 10, will be closed until July 16.
Central Plaza Rayong, another shopping center the government said to be visited by the aircrews, is still open to business as of Tuesday. The company said the mall was not visited by the pilot who tested positive for the virus.
At least 127 schools across the province were also closed down as a preventative measure against the possibility of a renewed outbreak.