Infectious disease experts have weighed in on Saturday's decision by the government to review its Go To Travel tourism promotion campaign, criticizing the move as too late and likely to have little effect in preventing the further spread of COVID-19.
"The review came late. It should have been conducted at least two weeks ago," Yoshito Niki, a visiting professor of infectious disease at Showa University, said Saturday.
"At present, Hokkaido and Tokyo are in Stage 3 situations in which infected people are sharply increasing," Niki said, referring to the second-worst level on Japan's four-tier scale for measuring the spread of the deadly virus.
On Sunday, Tokyo reported 391 new cases of COVID-19, dipping below 500 for the first time in four days.
As part of the review, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said Saturday that the government had decided to suspend new reservations of trips under the Go To Travel subsidy program to areas where infections are soaring.
The country’s virus task force had earlier recommended that the government consider reviewing the program. About 40 million people took advantage of the campaign from July 22 to Oct. 31, according to the tourism agency.
But Suga and government officials have not said when the suspension of the travel campaign will begin and which areas will be affected.
The decision, made without working out the details in advance, has led to confusion among local authorities, the tourism industry and the general public.
The government will try to unveil specifics in the next few days about how it will partially suspend the campaign, a senior government official said Sunday.
"After deciding on a course of action in the upcoming days, we will implement (the new policy) by working with prefectural governors," Yasutoshi Nishimura, who heads the government's coronavirus response, said on NHK. "We can’t afford to wait for a week or two.”
The lack of details about what the review will entail has unnerved some experts.
"It is not clear what regions the government regards as the areas where infections are expanding," Niki said. "There'll be little effect from the measure unless travel from such areas is also halted."
Perhaps most pressing, Niki said, was the apparent lack of a sense of urgency among the populace as coronavirus case numbers hit records over the last week in several prefectures, including Tokyo, Osaka, Hyogo and Saitama.
"I cannot recognize a sense of crisis in our society considering the movements of people on this first day of a three-day weekend," he said.
"Go To Travel should be stopped entirely until the current third wave (of coronavirus infections) peaks out," Niki said. "The government should immediately launch measures effective in slowing the expansion of infections and issue a strong message to the public."
Erisa Sugawara, professor of infection control at Tokyo Healthcare University, said that "the government seems to tolerate trips from areas where the virus is raging to regions with relatively small numbers of infection cases."
According to Sugawara, the government should have considered halting travel across prefectural borders for the time being.
"A more drastic review should have been carried out," she said.
As of Saturday, Japan had 313 severely ill COVID-19 patients nationwide, according to the health ministry. The number is still lower than the peak of 328 logged April 30.
"We need to give a high mark to the success in keeping the number of severely ill patients relatively low," she said. "But when winter comes, air temperatures and humidity drop, making it easier to catch the novel coronavirus."
Sugawara said that it can be forecast that if the number of virus carriers surges, patients with severe symptoms will also begin increasing a little later.
"The government should now take steps to restrict the movements of people," she added.
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