SAPPORO – Sapporo is preparing to stop taking new bookings under the state-run Go To Travel subsidy program given the high number of COVID-19 cases in the city, local government sources said Monday.
The policy came after Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said Saturday that Japan would suspend the travel subsidy program in areas with a high number of the COVID-19 cases.
Hokkaido and its capital are expected to discuss the specific time frame and conditions for the temporary withdrawal of Sapporo from the program later in the day, and to convey their position to the central government soon.
The island prefecture has recently seen a rise in new daily infections, which topped 300 for the first time last Friday. Japan reported more than 2,000 new cases of COVID-19 for a fifth straight day on Sunday.
The Go To Travel program, which was launched in late July, effectively covers about half of domestic travelers' expenses to support the tourism industry, which has been hit hard by the pandemic.
Hokkaido Gov. Naomichi Suzuki had been cautious about reviewing the campaign, saying at a news conference last week, "I don't think eating quietly at a hotel where antivirus measures have been taken and soaking in hot-spring baths are factors triggering the spread of infections."
However, he changed his position when the central government late last week back-tracked on its own initial reluctance to reconsider the program following advice from a panel of medical experts.
So far, some 40 million trips have been taken through the Go To Travel program, with 176 people that used the subsidies found to have been infected with the virus, according to the central government.
Toshio Nakagawa, head of the Japan Medical Association, has said there is no concrete evidence to indicate that the travel program is responsible for the recent rise in infections, but "there is no mistaking that it acted as a catalyst."
Medical experts have described the resurgence as a third wave of infections, attributing it to the arrival of cooler temperatures that have forced people to spend more time indoors, often in rooms without sufficient ventilation — which can stop the virus from spreading.
The move by Sapporo came as prefectural governors on Monday drafted a set of proposals to the central government over the resurgence of the virus, including flexibly excluding from the Go To Travel campaign areas considered to be in a Stage 3 situation with respect to the virus.
At the start of an online meeting of the National Governors' Association, Kamon Iizumi, head of the group and governor of Tokushima, said, "With Japan likely in the midst of the third wave of infections, the central government needs to issue a strong message to the public about measures it plans to take from now and the current infection situation."
Stage 3, which indicates a rapid increase in infections, is the second-worst level on the four-tier scale gauging the degree of spread of COVID-19 cases.
The association also called on the central government to implement measures to help users avoid confusion over the travel subsidy program, such as financial support for covering fees for when canceling reservations for travel.
Regarding the Go To Eat campaign, the association called for participants to make sure they wear face masks during dining and thoroughly disinfect their hands, as well as allowing respective local authorities to make flexible decisions to limit the size of groups visiting eating and drinking establishments.
The governors also adopted a declaration expressing caution over the third wave of infections, in which people were asked to take precautions with year-end and New Year holidays to reduce infection risks.
Tochigi Gov. Tomikazu Fukuda said "the review cannot be helped, but the central government has not announced a detailed policy, such as areas to be covered and when the review will take effect."
The central government decided Saturday to review the operations of its Go To series campaigns in some areas, including the suspension of reservations under Go To Travel and distribution of meal vouchers under Go To Eat, in cooperation with prefectural governors.
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