Scientific and public support for the central government’s travel subsidy campaign is waning as the novel coronavirus continues to spread in urban centers throughout the country.

A nonpeer-reviewed study published Monday found a higher incidence of health issues that resemble symptoms of COVID-19 among participants in the Go To Travel campaign, a government program meant to resuscitate the struggling tourism industry by subsidizing domestic travel.

In a monthlong internet poll of more than 25,400 people, researchers found that more than 3,200 had traveled using the government’s campaign subsidies, 4.8% of whom had experienced a fever compared with 3.7% of nonparticipants.

A loss of the ability to taste and smell was reported by 2.6% of participants and 1.7% of nonparticipants.

The report found a similar trend with other symptoms such as coughing and headaches.

“The participants of government subsidies for domestic travel experienced a higher incidence of symptoms indicative of the COVID-19 infection,” the report said.

The report was co-authored by researchers from the University of Tokyo’s Graduate School of Medicine, the Osaka International Cancer Institute, the Kanagawa University of Human Services, the University of California Los Angeles David Geffen School of Medicine and the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.

While critics and experts say the travel campaign most likely exacerbated the situation, central government officials continue to insist that no evidence supports the claim that the campaign caused or is causing the ongoing nationwide surge in COVID-19 that began in late October.

“This isn’t exclusive to the Go To Travel campaign, but privacy issues regarding sensitive personal information are a limiting factor in all attempts to draw conclusions about what is causing the virus to spread,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato said during a news conference Tuesday in response to a question about the scientific report.

Electric advertising signboards display ads affiliated with the Go To Travel campaign, a government-backed discount program encouraging domestic travel to help boost the economy, at a train station in Tokyo on Nov. 25. | REUTERS
Electric advertising signboards display ads affiliated with the Go To Travel campaign, a government-backed discount program encouraging domestic travel to help boost the economy, at a train station in Tokyo on Nov. 25. | REUTERS

As of Monday, 255 reported COVID-19 infections have emerged among the more than 40 million travelers who have made trips using discounts from the travel campaign, Kato said, while an additional 220 staff at accommodation facilities participating in the campaign have also tested positive.

“As I have said in the past, the government will continue to work with business owners to ensure that virus countermeasures are being taken,” he said. “The travel program has been suspended in parts of the country following consultation with local governors.”

In November, discounts for inbound and outbound travel from Sapporo and Osaka were suspended until mid-December as officials looked to protect hospitals in the country’s hardest-hit areas from becoming overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients.

However, local media reported earlier this month that officials are planning to extend the end of the travel campaign from January to June.

Meanwhile, public support for the travel campaign appears to be declining.

A Kyodo News survey published Sunday showed that 48% of respondents said the Go To Travel campaign should be suspended nationwide, while less than 12% said they believe the government is managing the campaign appropriately.

The Kyodo survey compiled responses from more than 1,900 random selected households with eligible voters and mobile phone users, more than half of whom responded to the inquiry.

The same survey showed the approval rate for Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s Cabinet fell by nearly 13 percentage points, from 63% in November to 50.3% in December. The last time the Cabinet’s approval dropped by more than 10 percentage points was in June 2017 during the Shinzo Abe administration.

Critics speculate that fading public support for the Suga administration can be attributed to growing concern over the travel campaign, which began in July despite fears that promoting domestic travel during an ongoing pandemic would only exacerbate the situation.

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