,Key sector: Employees trim smoked rubber sheets at the Thai Hua Rubber factory in Thailand. The sandbox test-isolation programme can be applied to about 60,000 factories with a huge workforce. ― Bloomberg
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BANGKOK: Thailand has launched a pilot programme to test, vaccinate and isolate factory workers to limit Covid-19-related disruptions to its export-driven manufacturing industry, one of the few bright spots in an economy crushed by the virus.
The “Factory Sandbox” initiative aims to protect three million jobs and support manufacturers who contribute about 700 billion baht (US$21bil or RM89.04bil) to gross domestic product, according to a government statement this week.
The plan will focus on plants that employ at least 500 people, and will “build confidence for both Thai and foreign investors at a time when supply chains in rival countries are shutting down,” the statement said.
Thai exports in the second quarter surged 27.5% from a year earlier, with growth in manufacturing one of the few economic bright spots amid weak retail spending, “diminishing effectiveness” of interest-rate cuts and the void of tourism, according to a report by Goldman Sachs Group Inc.
The project’s name is a play on words based on the “Phuket Sandbox,” a programme that has aimed to revive tourism in Thailand’s most-popular island.
The country has faced a relentless surge of Covid-19 since early April, with more than 500 clusters detected in factories. Driven by the Delta variant, the outbreaks have triggered production halts and supply shortages beyond Thailand’s borders, with several factories in Vietnam forced into temporary closures.
The Sandbox programme will focus on large factories that manufacture cars, electronics, food and medical equipment for exports in provinces that are key production hubs.
To qualify, the plants must have at least 500 workers, a field hospital or isolation facility, and shuttle services for employees.
All workers will also be tested for the coronavirus, and those who test positive will be isolated while cohorts will be inoculated, with subsequent tests done every seven days.
Sixty factories in four provinces with a combined workforce of 138,000 will participate in the initial phase, according to the government statement. The regions comprise Nonthaburi, Pathum Thani, Samut Sakhon and Chonburi, all of which are within an hour’s drive of Bangkok.
Last month, the Federation of Thai Industries proposed a similar test-isolation programme that could be applied to about 60,000 factories.
That plan called for testing one-fifth of staff, and if the positivity rate exceeded 20%, all employees would be confined to the site. The federation also called for faster inoculations of factory workers, a cohort that has a combined vaccination rate of only 10%.
“The government should focus on acquiring vaccines and inoculating as many people as it can and as fast as it can,” said Maria Lapiz, managing director of Maybank Kim Eng Securities Thailand Pcl. “It should strive to step up to double dose because a single dose is inadequate and won’t help reduce fear.”