Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Monday abruptly announced that the Go To Travel campaign will be suspended nationwide from Dec. 28 to Jan. 11 — a drastic policy shift amid heavy government spending aimed at simultaneously rebooting the economy and containing the virus.

“All steps need to be taken to protect lives and stop the virus from spreading further,” Suga said during a government task force meeting Monday evening.

His remarks suggest that efforts to concurrently keep the economy functioning and contain the virus have hit a wall, with record-breaking cases emerging nationwide almost daily since late October.

“The end of the year and the beginning of a new year would be a period that is possible to concentrate efforts to curb the new patients as they exceeded 3,000 this day. Therefore, I’ve made a decision to temporarily suspend Go To Travel nationwide,” Suga later told reporters.

The prime minister “not only adopted what the (government coronavirus) subcommittee has proposed, but took it a step further,” said Shigeru Omi, chair of the government’s virus subcommittee, following Suga’s announcement.

“It’s a strong message by the central and local governments that they are determined to overcome this crisis,” Omi said.

Suga said Tokyo and Nagoya will be removed as eligible destinations for the Go To Travel campaign.

Effective Friday, inbound travel to Tokyo through the campaign will be halted and outbound travel discouraged until Dec. 27.

From Dec. 28 until Jan. 11, both inbound and outbound travel will be suspended from the campaign in accordance with Suga’s announcement.

“Motto Tokyo” — the capital’s localized travel promotion campaign — and the central government’s Go To Eat dining subsidy campaign will be suspended from Friday until Jan. 11.

“Tokyo supports the central government in taking decisive, comprehensive steps to prevent the virus from spreading further,” Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said Monday evening during a meeting of the metropolitan government’s coronavirus task force. “The capital’s health care system is beginning to become overwhelmed and protecting hospitals is our greatest priority.”

Koike urged residents to avoid nonessential travel within and outside of city limits over the year-end holiday season.

Aichi Prefecture also expanded its request for restaurants and bars that serve alcohol to close at 9 p.m., currently in place for part of Naka Ward in the city of Nagoya, to the whole ward and will extend the request to Jan. 11. Businesses that comply will receive ¥20,000 a day.

Confusion and controversy have surrounded the government’s travel campaign since late October, when a nationwide surge of COVID-19 forced officials to grapple with the inherent risk of promoting travel during an ongoing pandemic.

On Saturday, Tokyo reported an unprecedented 621 cases while the country saw more than 3,000 cases in one day for the first time. Tokyo reported 305 cases on Monday. | AP
On Saturday, Tokyo reported an unprecedented 621 cases while the country saw more than 3,000 cases in one day for the first time. Tokyo reported 305 cases on Monday. | AP

The Suga administration clashed with prefectural governors after he announced that the central government would consult with local leaders when determining whether the travel campaign should be suspended in their area. A number of governors pushed back, demanding he remain in control of the travel campaign — a national program introduced, funded and implemented by the central government.

In late November, travel to and from Sapporo and Osaka were suspended until mid-December. Restaurants, karaoke bars and other food establishments that serve alcohol were urged to close early until mid-December in parts of Tokyo, Osaka, Hokkaido, Aichi, Chiba and Saitama prefectures.

Officials say that, if countermeasures prove ineffective as the virus continues to spread, stronger steps will need to be taken.

Last month, Yasutoshi Nishimura, the Cabinet minister leading the government’s virus response, said the declaration of a state of emergency would “enter the field of view” if the virus hadn’t shown signs of abating in three weeks. The government declared a state of emergency in April that lasted until late May.

On Friday, Nishimura said to reporters that such a situation “must be avoided at all cost.”

“The virus continues to spread,” he said. “If new cases continue to climb, the economic impact will grow and stricter measures will become necessary.”

Roughly two weeks have now passed since Nishimura made the initial comment, and the virus appears to be gaining momentum.

On Saturday, Tokyo reported an unprecedented 621 cases while the country saw more than 3,000 cases in one day for the first time. Tokyo reported 305 cases on Monday.

Still, top officials deferred on Friday the decision to extend or expand temporary restrictions on the travel campaign.

“Nobody can predict what will happen next week,” said Omi during a news conference Friday. “It’s impossible to decide now what needs to be done then, since the situation is inevitably going to change.”

On Friday, 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 scenarios, 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.

Satoshi Sugiyama contributed to the report.

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