Japan on Monday suspended new entries into the country by nonresident foreign nationals arriving from most of the world through the end of January as it seeks to prevent the spread of the new, potentially more transmissible coronavirus variant.
The government will also require Japanese citizens and foreign residents coming from countries and territories where the new variant is confirmed to submit negative virus test results within 72 hours of departure and undergo tests upon arrival from Wednesday through the end of January.
The new virus strain, first detected in Britain, has since been confirmed in more than 20 countries as well as in Hong Kong.
Businesspeople and students from 10 Asian nations such as mainland China and South Korea plus Taiwan, with which Japan has a special system to ease travel restrictions, are not affected by the latest measure.
Starting Thursday, Japan had already banned new entry by nonresident foreign nationals who have recently been to Britain and South Africa, where another new variant has been detected.
British health officials have said the new strain, first detected in September, could be up to 70% more transmissible, but there was no evidence of it being deadlier or capable of evading immunity induced by vaccines.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga told reporters Monday that the government implemented the arrival restrictions to “protect our citizens’ lives and livelihoods, by taking measures in advance” to forestall the spread of the new virus strain.
He also said that response to the new variant was the same as to the original COVID-19 virus and called for people to wash hands, wear masks and to hold New Year’s celebrations “quietly.”
Suga reiterated that the government plans to submit a bill to the Diet early next year to revise the existing special law for combating the virus. The legislation is aimed at compensating restaurants, bars and other eateries following requests to adopt shorter hours and penalizing those that do not comply.
In Japan, eight people have so far been confirmed to be infected with the variant detected in Britain. They include an airline pilot who returned from London on Dec. 16 and a woman in his family who has no history of visiting Britain.
On Sunday, the health ministry confirmed a Tokyo woman in her 50s who returned from Britain on Dec. 13 has been infected with the variant. She has been hospitalized since last Tuesday and no one had close contact with her.
While the country had been slowly opening up to international travel as it seeks to repair its battered economy and prepare for the rescheduled Olympics next summer, it shifted back toward tightening its borders as the medical system has been significantly strained by a spike in the number of coronavirus cases.
Japan confirmed a record 3,881 coronavirus cases on Saturday, while 2,945 new cases were reported on Sunday.
In an effort to prevent the pandemic from further straining hospitals’ ability to treat COVID-19 patients during the year-end and New Year’s holidays, when there are usually fewer medical personnel on duty, the government also suspended Monday its Go To Travel tourism promotion campaign through Jan. 11.
The campaign, which subsidizes up to half of people’s travel expenses, had already been halted for trips to Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, Hiroshima and Sapporo, which have seen a notable increase in infections. It was originally launched in July to help the country’s pandemic-hit tourism industry.
The nationwide halt of the campaign is estimated to cause a loss of ¥318.7 billion in potential spending through Jan. 3, with the nation observing a 73% drop in the number of travelers from last year due to the pandemic, according to JTB Tourism Research and Consulting Co.
Adventure Inc., the operator of travel reservation website Skyticket, said about 4,000 of the roughly 6,000 reservations made for the suspended period have been canceled since Dec. 14.
The government will cover 50% of the losses sustained by travel agencies and hotel operators.
Local tourism operators have expressed concern about the twin impact of the country’s tighter border restrictions and halting of the Go To Travel campaign.
“We can’t expect foreign tourists to come, and with the extended suspension of the Go To Travel promotion, we can’t be sure about how we will be affected,” said Shunichi Kobayashi, 73, who runs a ski resort in Sapporo. “We aren’t sure if there will be as many people as in past peak seasons.”
In Tokyo, Yoshihiko Fukazawa, 66, who operates a dry-food shop at the famed Ameyokocho shopping street, said, “The flow of people has again stopped” since the suspension of the travel campaign, which had helped his badly hit business recover to some degree.
With the absence of foreign tourists, who could be counted on to make large purchases, Fukazawa said sales this year have dropped by up to 70% from the level in usual years. “I have been in business for 48 years, and this is the first time we are facing such dire straits,” he added.
Kyoto, another popular tourist draw, was also affected, with Kiyotaka Fujiki, an 82-year-old souvenir shop manager, saying he expects sales during the holiday season to be less than 10% of that seen in normal years.
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