Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s flagship measure took a blow from the novel coronavirus Monday when he announced the Go To Travel campaign would be suspended nationwide for two weeks over the year-end holidays.
Plummeting public support, growing political opposition and experts sounding the alarm drove Suga to suspend the campaign, while the virus itself seemed, at most, a secondary factor.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, leaders have sought to stimulate the economy while containing the virus in a two-track policy that would, each time cases began to surge, be reluctantly rolled back in small steps.
“The government’s biggest responsibility is to protect the lives and livelihoods of the people,” Suga said during a news conference earlier this month.
On Nov. 2, the country saw 482 new cases, but the daily toll of new infections had nearly tripled by the end of the month. On Monday alone, more than 2,300 new cases were recorded nationwide.
In a sign of growing caution, the government excluded inbound travel to the cities of Sapporo and Osaka from the travel campaign on Nov. 24. Three days later, outbound travel from both cities was also suspended.
Still, the central government remained committed to the subsidy program. The survival of local businesses superseded public health as officials chose to selectively suspend and restrict — or even extend — but ultimately proceed with the travel campaign even as a third wave of COVID-19 gained momentum.
“We’re not considering a nationwide suspension of the Go To Travel campaign at this time,” Suga said Saturday, just a few days ago.
Opinion polls, however, showed that public dissent was rising. On Sunday, a Mainichi newspaper survey found that disapproval of the Suga administration had surpassed approval for the first time since he became prime minister.
Concern about the virus pushed support for his Cabinet down to 40% in December according to the survey, a significant drop from the 57% he’d enjoyed the previous month. The same survey also showed that 14% of those queried approved of the government’s response to the pandemic, which was 20 percentage points lower than the previous month.
Efforts to balance economic recovery and health appeared to hit a wall, as public, political and scientific opposition grew.
On Friday, the government’s COVID-19 subcommittee urged leaders to take stronger measures and warned that parts of the country had reached Stage 3 on the subcommittee’s alert scale, which had already been stated as the threshold for changes to the Go To Travel campaign.
“It’s necessary to take big steps in crisis management. Small steps aren’t a good idea,” Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike told reporters Sunday.
Halting the domestic travel initiative over the critical year-end period was a major concession for Suga, who had played a key role in devising the travel campaign earlier this year as chief Cabinet secretary under then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
But with major cities reporting record-breaking daily cases on multiple occasions over the past two months, Suga didn’t have much of a choice.
“Many people take time off work and travel during the year-end holidays,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato told reporters Tuesday morning. “It’s crucial that we celebrate modestly this year to prevent the health care system from becoming overwhelmed.”
Some officials who had called on the central government to take greater steps to curb the virus expressed satisfaction with Suga’s decision.
The prime minister not only adopted the subcommittee’s proposals, he “took it a step further,” said Shigeru Omi, subcommittee chair and president of the Japan Community Healthcare Organization.
“Tokyo supports the central government in taking decisive, comprehensive steps to prevent the virus from spreading further,” Koike said Monday evening during a meeting of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s COVID-19 task force. “The capital’s health care system is starting to be overwhelmed, and protecting hospitals is our greatest priority.”
Still, the prime minister seems to be standing by his approach of working to stimulate the economy and contain the virus simultaneously.
Speaking to reporters Monday evening, Suga said “I believe the Go To Travel campaign has helped a great deal in supporting the local economy.”
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