Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga abruptly announced Saturday that areas experiencing the brunt of a nationwide surge in COVID-19 infections will be removed indefinitely from an ongoing government tourism promotion campaign.
Top officials had been adamant that, despite the onset of a third wave of the novel coronavirus, government-funded programs meant to subsidize the food, entertainment and tourism industries would proceed.
Suga said the central government will secure ¥50 billion to provide financial support if and when governors call on local businesses to reduce or suspend operations.
“Stronger countermeasures will be needed to stop the virus from spreading further,” Suga said during a meeting of the central government’s coronavirus task force on Saturday. “In doing so we will move forward in close cooperation with municipal governors.”
The central government changed its stance a day after experts on its coronavirus subcommittee urged officials to consider requesting businesses to reduce or suspend operations over the next three weeks, discourage travel in and out of hard-hit areas and exclude certain regions from the travel campaign to avoid exacerbating the nation’s worst wave of infections since the start of the pandemic.
“Relying on the behavior of individuals may not continue to work,” subcommittee chair Shigeru Omi said during a news conference Friday.
“The country is seeing an increasing number of clusters emerging in unpredictable places and untraceable infections,” he said. “It’s becoming more difficult to balance virus countermeasures and economic recovery.”
After the Go To Travel campaign began, the subcommittee put forward a set of criteria largely based on new COVID-19 infections and the state of the health care system, among other factors.
If a city or prefecture reaches Stage 3, individuals should refrain from traveling to areas experiencing a wide spread of the virus if they are unable to take thorough preventive measures. Stage 4 is the worst phase and indicates that the virus is spreading in an explosive manner.
On Friday, Omi said that he personally believed Tokyo and Osaka were “approaching Stage 3” and that Sapporo was “already in Stage 3.”
However, he said, the final decision is to be made by each governor.
Japan reported 2,596 new cases of the novel coronavirus Saturday, public broadcaster NHK reported, the fourth consecutive record-breaking day amid an ongoing nationwide surge that began in late October.
Tokyo reported a record-breaking 539 additional cases of COVID-19 on Saturday, after recording 522 on Friday and 534 on Thursday, which together brought the city’s total to more than 37,300 infections cases, along with 476 deaths.
Several other prefectures posted record-busting daily figures, including Osaka, with 415 cases, Saitama, at 173, Hyogo, with 142, Chiba, with 109, Ibaraki, with 66, and Ehime, at 20.
Tokyo was initially excluded from the ¥1.35 trillion Go To Travel campaign, which began in late July despite criticism that subsidizing travel during an ongoing pandemic would help the virus spread throughout the country.
The capital joined the campaign on Oct. 1, and so its 13.9 million residents gained access to a slew of discounts on travel expenses.
While members of the subcommittee say there is no evidence that the travel campaign is responsible for the surge in new infections, experts say it added fuel to the fire.
On Thursday, Japan Medical Association President Toshio Nakagawa said that, while the campaign may not be the cause of the third wave in Japan, it “acted as a catalyst.”
Haruo Ozaki, president of the Tokyo Medical Association, said on Friday that the virus was “surely spread” through the movement of millions of people using the travel campaign, and that the government should suspend the program, at least temporarily, in the areas reporting the most new cases.
Suga said on Friday that the current situation calls for “maximum caution.”
After the second wave peaked in July, new cases saw a marginal decrease than plateaued in August and have since remained steady at a consistently high level. During that time, the virus was spreading where it can’t be seen, said Hitoshi Oshitani, a virologist and infectious disease expert who serves on the central government’s coronavirus advisory board.
“The virus has made its way into places we can’t see,” he said during a news conference on Friday. “It’s best to assume the virus is spreading more than we know, and that it’s most likely being transmitted most rapidly among young people who are often asymptomatic.”
Meanwhile the country continues to report high numbers heading into a national holiday. Officials are urging residents to wear masks, use disinfectant and take all possible precautions over the three-day weekend.
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