Japan is staring down another critical week of rising COVID-19 cases, as top government officials deferred Friday a decision to extend or expand temporary restrictions on the nation’s Go To Travel campaign before they expire next week.
“Nobody can predict what will happen next week,” said Shigeru Omi, chair of the government’s novel coronavirus subcommittee, during a news conference Friday. “It’s impossible to decide now what needs to be done, since the situation is inevitably going to change.”
The subcommittee put forward three scenarios, in which new cases decrease, plateau or increase, suggesting that officials would need to decide whether to incrementally lift, maintain or strengthen virus countermeasures accordingly. The second and third scenario, Omi said, would warrant the extension or enhancement of measures that discourage travel across prefectures.
Separately, regions that have reached stage 3 according to the subcommittee’s virus alert scale will need to be suspended from the travel campaign. Omi said he believed Tokyo, Osaka and Hokkaido prefectures had reached that stage.
Earlier in the day, Yasutoshi Nishimura, the Cabinet minister leading the government’s virus response, said to reporters that a state of emergency “must be avoided at all costs.”
“The virus continues to spread,” he said. “If new cases continue to climb, the economic impact will grow and stricter measures will become necessary.”
In a draft proposal set to be submitted later Friday, the subcommittee urged the public to avoid parties during the year-end holidays and to work remotely as much as possible, while asking governors and municipal leaders to continue to ensure large public events follow existing virus countermeasures.
During a live television program on the day, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said he wasn’t considering a complete suspension of the travel campaign at this point in time.
The government’s ¥1.35 trillion domestic tourism promotion campaign was temporarily suspended in Sapporo and Osaka last month for three weeks, in an attempt to curb a nationwide surge of COVID-19 that began in October. Restaurants, karaoke bars and other food establishments that serve alcohol were urged to close early in parts of Tokyo, Osaka, Hokkaido, Aichi, Chiba and Saitama prefectures.
When officials announced partial suspensions of the travel campaign in November, Nishimura said the declaration of a state of emergency would “enter our field of view” if the virus hadn’t shown signs of abatement in three weeks.
Roughly two weeks have passed since then, and the virus appears to be gaining momentum.
Tokyo recorded 595 new cases Friday, just a day after the capital reported an unprecedented 602 cases and the country saw 2,954 new infections Thursday — a record-breaking nationwide figure for the second day in a row.
“Older people, as well as individuals with pre-existing health conditions, have been asked to refrain from travel until Dec. 17,” Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said during a news conference Friday. “The capital will be watching closely to see what the virus subcommittee suggests, and any decisions regarding how the government intends to move forward.”
On Thursday, Hokkaido Prefecture announced that requests urging certain food establishments in Sapporo to close early would be extended until Dec. 25.
Hirofumi Yoshimura, the governor of Osaka Prefecture — which has been suspended from the Go To Travel campaign until Tuesday — said Wednesday the central government should consider extending restrictions on local businesses and suspension of the campaign.
On Friday, the Defense Ministry agreed to send seven Self-Defense Forces nurses to two medical facilities in the prefecture in response to a request by Yoshimura, to help the health care system in the area cope with a surge in cases. The decision came after 10 nurses from the Ground Self-Defense Force were sent to two medical facilities in Asahikawa, Hokkaido, earlier this week.
Inbound and outbound travel using discounts afforded by the travel campaign were temporarily suspended for the cities of Sapporo and Osaka in November.
Officials said that, during that time, new reservations would be halted and past reservations would be canceled and reimbursed by the central government.
Information from Kyodo added.
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