Paro International Airport (Left) and Phuentsholing Gate (Photo Courtesy: Sangay Tenzing) (Right)

Relaxations could take another two to three months: Govt

Govt worried about spread of Delta globally, vaccinated getting infected in other countries and 30% of domestic population yet to get the vaccines

With around 95 percent of the eligible population and around 65 percent of the total population getting vaccinated with the second dose, there has been some speculation that the government will soon bring about various relaxations from opening up economic activities to relaxing quarantine restrictions.

However, with the Delta variant taking hold globally and spreading like wildfire with even cases of fully vaccinated people getting infected, the government is taking a cautious approach.

The Prime Minister Dasho (Dr) Lotay Tshering said, “Allowing economic activities to take place is to take the risk of COVID spread. There is no magic bullet and I doubt if there is any real balanced positon that we are not seeing. It is to choose life or livelihood. In COVID it is about the viral mutations, vaccination primer and booster, T and B cells activity (immune response), booster dose etc.”

The Prime Minister said that the NITAG under the Ministry of Health had come up with various recommendations on relaxations in the National COVID-19 Task Force (NCTF) meeting recently but this had not been approved and sent back for changes with recommendations.

He said that recommendations can only be considered in the future at the right time.

Relaxations within 2 to 3 months

The Foreign Minister Dr Tandi Dorji who is also a member of the NCTF said the NITAG recommendations was the way forward on testing for surveillance, on quarantine including the south to north movement, slight relaxations but the NCTF felt that it was not right to consider these matters unless the children are fully vaccinated and Bhutan achieves 80 percent second dose herd immunity.

Dr Tandi said that within another six weeks’ children would get their second dose and then they would have to wait for another two weeks after that, and only after this the issue of relaxation can be considered.

Lyonpo said that under the leadership of His Majesty The King the priority is safeguarding the protecting the people during the pandemic.

Lyonpo said that any relaxations can come into play only two to three months down the line.

What we need to watch out for

The Health Minister Dasho Dechen Wangmo said that at the moment only two things are certain. One is that any relaxations will only happen in a phased manner for a few reasons.

Secondly Dasho said that the immediate relaxation would be on surveillance testing which is currently being done in huge numbers and so this enhanced surveillance would be stepped down. 

Giving the reasons for the cautious approach Dasho said, “We are seeing breakthrough cases globally with infections even among the fully vaccinated and so we really don’t know at this point how effective the vaccines are (in preventing infection). It will have to be a very cautious approach.”

“Do I see the immediate removal of quarantine and all that – at this point with the coverage that we have and especially children which is 30 percent of our population are still not protected. So we still don’t see immediate relaxation,” said Lyonpo.

She said they have submitted their proposal (NITAG) and have received some feedback which they will work on and then present it to the NCTF.  

Lyonpo said non pharmaceutical interventions like mask wearing, hand washing, Druk Trace app etc are here to stay and that is their recommendation.

“On the quarantine, surveillance, testing, patient management we have submitted and at this point we have not received any endorsement from the National Taskforce (NCTF) and so I would not want to go into that discussion but one thing is for sure -which is a very cautioned re-opening for these reasons,” said Lyonpo.

She said that they still do not understand the behavior of the Delta variant, and five new variants of concern had come up in addition to the earlier VOCs.

Lyonpo said that the risk differentiation between high and low risk areas and hence the 7-day quarantine will stay.

When asked about if the 21-days quarantine was discussed in the NITAG proposal the minister said that she did not want to discus it without any endorsement from the NCTF.

On the opening of the economy, Lyonpo said that as the health minister it would be very difficult to comment on when the economy could open technically.

“For me unless we are fairly confident, because the measures we have taken so far have paid off and so we don’t want to rush into it and land up in a place where we say let’s go with the livelihood and let’s compromise health, and then all the effort that has gone in so far will get compromised and we don’t want to take that risk. Absolutely not,” said Lyonpo.

Lyonpo said that they are observing breakthrough cases globally which in itself is an indication that we don’t have 100 percent protection.

“So for us the decision is can we live with reduced hospitalization and mortality and other one is not having any infection. We have always gone with not having any infection and we would like to stick with it as we have done very well with clean virgin communities which did not have any outbreak and we would like to maintain that,” said the minister.

In response to a question Lyonpo said that what will happen in India will be a factor and another factor is not having any information on the delta variant as of now and not having enough information on the breakthrough cases.

She said that Bhutan has always been a country that has relied on  science and decisions have been made based on science and the science points out that we must take a very cautioned approach to re-opening, and globally that is true.

Lyonpo said there are many examples globally where people rush into opening and it flares up the cases and there are more hospitalizations and even mortality in breakthrough cases.

She said that people do die even after being vaccinated once they get infected though it is not at a large scale, but people are dying.  

Lyonpo said that one learning from the Phuentsholing is that when there is one case the whole household gets it and even the whole building gets it.

“That is how the transmissibility of the virus is very high and that is something that we cannot compromise on,” added Lyonpo.

In fact, many of these cases were among those who had got the first dose.

Lyonchhen said that he, the foreign minister and the health minister are on the NCTF not as representatives of the government but as experts themselves.

The Economic argument

To illustrate a point of how serious the NCTF is, Lyonchhen said that Lyonpo Loknath Sharma had even calculated the daily loss of revenue in the millions if projects are delayed but the government could not consider it at all as the government is all out on the prevention mode and in saving lives (see separate story on delay in hydro projects in page 1).

Lyonchhen said that as long as tourists follow the 21-day protocol they can come and the government has already given clearance for the first such tourist to come in the country (see separate story on opening tourism on page 4).

He also said that for labourers to come in the only issue is quarantine centers which are already being built in the south with a total of 2,000 beds (see separate story on allowing labourers in page 1).

Meanwhile in an earlier interview done a week before the above comments both the Finance Minister Lyonpo Namgay Tshering and the Minister for Economic Affairs stressed the need to open up the economy gradually after the second jab.

The Finance Minister said that both he and the MoEA minister feel the need to open up gradually depending on the situation not only within the country but also the external situation.

The Finance minister talked of increasing cases in Thailand, Japan with the Olympics and also the state of emergency in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Lyonpo said there is a need to get in foreign workers to complete the ongoing construction of P I and especially P II which is targeting the end of 2022 as its completion date.

Lyonpo said the second area is the gradual opening of Tourism by adopting a sand box approach like in Thailand where tourists can go to an identified location like Phuket for 7 days and undergo testing, produce vaccine certificates and have test results 72 hours before arriving or a bubble tourism approach.

Lyonpo said that Bhutan cannot open its international borders unless the WHO declares that COVID-19 is no longer a global pandemic but now that Bhutan is achieving herd immunity some relaxations in the domestic economy could be looked at. He said that inter-Dzongkhag travel could be made easier and Drayangs and bars could be opened with certain conditions that looked at social aspects.

The minister said that he has already talked to the RMA and the MoEA so that two agencies along with MoF can sit together to immediately chart a robust recovery plan and a way forward both in the short term and the longer term. He said the MoEA Minister is very much in agreement with this.

MoEA Minister Lyonpo Loknath Sharma said the economy has to ‘broaden and fasten but COVID has held it hard’.

“Every sector is in ICU and we need to unbundle protocols and measure gradually as we achieve immunity,” said Lyonpo.

He said the construction sector be it hydropower or general construction has to get up and industries in new industrial parks has to stand up soon.

The minister said tourism needs to pick up but it might take time as neighboring linking areas like Delhi, Bangkok and Kathmandu has to also open up for flight connections.

He said focus is to open 100 percent industries at Pasakha, Motanga and all others focusing on export.

The MoEA minister said that export of minerals and boulders also need to pick up stronger.

He said that trade will have to be boosted which is arrested currently due to heavy protocols.

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