Japan’s lax enforcement of rules stopping travelers using public transportation from airports is turning into a vulnerability in its efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19 — a problem that could intensify as the nation expects a surge in new arrivals from abroad toward the end of the year.
Under the current border control policy, all travelers from abroad, Japanese or foreign, are asked not to use public transportation for the entirety of their two-week quarantine period, including immediately after arrival, due to the risk of spreading the virus.
But reports have emerged in recent weeks and days that some of them have been spotted ignoring this request when leaving airports, relying on trains and buses instead to get back home or visit nearby hotels for the two-week quarantine.
This particularly bodes ill for Japan as it braces for the year-end holiday season, which will likely mark the mass return of Japanese nationals who wish to celebrate the arrival of the new year with their families and friends back home.
Under the current travel restrictions, those from lower-risk countries and regions categorized as Level 2, such as South Korea, Singapore, Thailand and Taiwan, have been exempted from mandatory COVID-19 testing at airports. Travelers from regions placed at Level 3 — the second-highest under the nation’s travel advisory system — remain subject to testing upon entry, but the possibility of false negatives suggests their using public transportation is not completely safe either.
Airport officials are now ratcheting up vigilance, reminding incoming travelers that they should arrange vehicles, such as by hiring taxis, renting cars and asking their families to come pick them up, to depart airports.
Narita International Airport in Chiba Prefecture, for one, started broadcasting an announcement in four different languages — Japanese, English, Chinese and Korean — earlier this month asking arrivals from overseas to steer clear of public transportation.
“It’s not like we keep a tally of travelers who have used public transportation so far, but we have been receiving reports from train station and airport officials that there appear to be some travelers who do,” said a spokesman for Narita Airport Quarantine, declining to be named.
Reasons for their noncompliance vary, but the lack of penalties and strict surveillance by officials is considered one possible factor.
Also seemingly at play are financial burdens. According to the website Rakuraku Taxi, which runs services that cater to travelers wishing to hire taxis from Narita or Haneda Airport in Tokyo, a ride up to the Tohoku region, for example, costs well beyond ¥100,000, or in some cases, close to a whopping ¥300,000.
Even a trip back home to the Greater Tokyo Area — particularly prefectures such as Ibaraki, Tochigi and Gunma — does not come cheap, with the price climbing to as high as ¥70,000. They could avoid the costly ride by booking hotels nearby to let the two-week period pass, but even so, the fact remains they need to pay for their accommodation.
In an apparent compromise meant to ease rules on public transportation, the government is now reportedly considering whether to allow travelers to use trains to depart airports after all — on condition that they will be segregated into cars set aside exclusively for them, according to the Nikkei business daily.
The transport ministry is also now arranging for Airport Transport Service Co. to run shuttle buses from Narita and Haneda airports to some 12 hotels within Tokyo to relieve travelers of expensive taxi fares, ministry official Keita Yamamoto said. If all goes well, the service is set to start on Dec. 16, according to the airport bus operator.
“Even if someone infected with the coronavirus uses public transportation, the risk of them spreading the virus isn’t that high if they wear a mask, manage to keep a distance and refrain from chatting the whole time they’re on the train,” said Tetsuya Matsumoto, a professor of public health studies who specializes in infectious diseases at the International University of Health and Welfare Graduate School. But failures to observe these basic anti-infection protocols could easily increase the risk, he added.
“The risk will grow more serious not only toward the end of the year, but toward the Olympics as well, with the government no doubt determined to further lure foreign nationals,” Matsumoto said.
“Should the government simply try to attract more foreign visitors without putting in place sufficient countermeasures against the use of public transportation at the same time, problems are bound to occur.”
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