• KYODO, Reuters

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The number of travel-associated COVID-19 cases across the nation increased around threefold, with cases linked to tourism rising nearly sevenfold, after the government began a subsidy program aimed at promoting domestic tourism in July, a recent study found.

“Although the second epidemic wave in Japan had begun to decline by mid-August, enhanced domestic tourism may have contributed to increasing travel-associated COVID-19 cases,” Kyoto University researchers Hiroshi Nishiura and Asami Anzai said in the study, published last Thursday in the Journal of Clinical Medicine.

Nishiura, who has acted as an adviser to the government’s pandemic response, was dubbed by the media as “Uncle 80%” for his advice that people reduce their social interactions by that amount.

The two researchers analyzed daily infection numbers prior to and after the start of the Go To Travel campaign spearheaded by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, which effectively covered half of travelers’ expenses.

The program was launched on July 22 to support the tourism industry, which had been severely affected by the pandemic. The government suspended the campaign nationwide in late December due to a sharp resurgence of infections, although Suga was reluctant to change course until the last minute.

The researchers analyzed travel movements of around 4,000 people from 24 of Japan’s prefectures who contracted COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, between May and August of last year. A total of 817 had crossed prefectural borders or had come into contact with those who had. They also compared numbers of cases before — between June 22 and July 21 — and after the travel program was implemented.

The total number of travel-associated infections reported daily across Japan increased around threefold after the start of the campaign, the study found. For tourism-associated cases in particular, excluding those related to business trips, case numbers rose by factors of up to 6.8.

“It is natural that enhancing human mobility across wider geographic areas would facilitate additional contact” and spread the virus, the study said.

Another study published last month had also found a higher incidence of COVID-19 symptoms among people who had participated in the travel campaign.

While Japan has fared comparatively well compared to many nations, the number of infections has shown little sign of declining, and a state of emergency was declared for parts of the country, including Tokyo, earlier this month.

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