Japan will be tightening its restrictions on entry from the United Kingdom starting Thursday, the government announced Wednesday, due to fears of a new variant of the coronavirus creeping into a nation already ravaged by a third wave of the pandemic.

The immigration authority will ban new entries of foreign nationals who have been in the U.K. in the past 14 days and suspend the exemption of a 14-day self-quarantine measure for short-term business travelers who have returned to Japan from the U.K., said Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato in a regular briefing.

Beginning Sunday, the government will additionally require Japanese citizens to submit upon entry a negative result from a virus test taken within 72 hours before departure — a measure already mandatory for foreign nationals with valid residential permits seeking to re-enter the country. If they can’t submit the test result, they will be asked to stay in designated accommodation provided by the authorities and quarantine for 14 days.

Both Japanese and returning foreign nationals also need to pledge to download a government contract tracing app or maintain their location information records.

The government said the restriction will be in place for “some time” without an end date.

The new restriction will add Japan to the list of the countries, primarily in Europe, that are already imposing strict entry bans or flight suspensions to prevent the entry of the mutated virus. It will also be a temporary setback for Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s endeavor to restore international travel, which he considers integral to reinvigorating the economy.

“Responding to the new variant in the U.K., the government has decided to enhance border control measures for those entering from the U.K. to ensure further coronavirus spread in the country is contained and the public feel safe, in addition to the effective measures we’ve put in place already,” Kato said.

Before Wednesday, the government had already asked Japanese citizens and foreign nationals permitted to return to Japan from the U.K. to refrain from using public transportation and self-isolate for 14 days. Those measures will remain in place and will continue to be applied to individuals re-entering Japan after transiting through the U.K..

Asked whether similar entry restrictions would be expanded to other countries that have detected the new COVID-19 strain, such as Italy and Australia, Kato said the government will monitor the situation and act accordingly.

“It’s hard to make a decision without a certain amount of data or analysis,” he said. “In the case of the U.K., the authorities released their analysis findings. If necessary, the Japanese government will respond quickly as we follow the developments and collect the necessary information.”

The government will urge people to avoid all short-term travel to Britain, saying that the Foreign Ministry designates the country as level 3 in its travel advice and warning on infectious diseases, the top government spokesman added.

The government in October dialed back entry restrictions for returning mid- and long-term foreign residents with valid residential permits and relaxed the 14-day self-quarantine mandate for business travelers with certain conditions. However, the immigration authority has maintained the ban on new entries from the U.K. and Europe other than cases of “special exceptional circumstances,” including a spouse or a child of a Japanese citizen or a permanent resident.

Kato said about 150 people arrived from the U.K. per day on average in December, of which 140 were Japanese nationals. This represents a threefold increase on last month.

More than 40 countries and territories, mostly in Europe but also including Hong Kong, Canada and Chile, have announced they will suspend flights from the U.K., according to a tally compiled by AFP.

British Health Secretary Matt Hancock warned the new variant, which is said to be 70% more contagious, is “out of control” in Britain and indicated more stringent restrictions need to be kept in place for several months in the country to stabilize the fast-spreading outbreak.

The variant has not been found in Japan so far, Kato said Monday.

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