Looking to prevent coronavirus infections imported from abroad, Japan has beefed up surveillance of people quarantining after entering the country.

Despite stringent border controls — from banning new entries, COVID-19 testing upon arrival and a 14-day quarantine requirement — new virus variants have been found in the country, prompting the government to suspect that arrivals may not have been self-isolating as strictly as they should have.

As a result, Japan introduced a new location-tracking app earlier this month to make sure that those quarantining actually do so.

At present, only Japanese citizens and non-Japanese with legal residence status are allowed to re-enter the country, while nonresident foreign nationals are granted permission to enter only under exceptional circumstances.

How does the tracking system work?

When people arrive at the airport, for instance, they are required to share their contact information, such as phone number and email address, with officials at the Health Monitoring Center for Overseas Entrants (HCO) affiliated with the health ministry. They will also be asked to download a tracking app called OEL (Overseas Entrants Locator) and turn on their GPS location setting so that their whereabouts can be tracked during the quarantine period.

Since March, immigration officers at Haneda and Narita airports have been checking whether the apps are correctly installed. Those who do not have a smartphone need to rent one at the airport.

During the quarantine period, which starts one day after entering Japan, they will receive notification messages from OEL telling them to click “I’m here now” on the app, which will send their location to officials. Previously known as Overseas Student Safety Management Assistance, the app was originally used to help locate Japanese students studying abroad in times of disaster or other emergencies.

“We’re making sure that all entrants can be reached,” a health ministry official said. “And that’s the main change in our efforts to tighten control.”

Those who fail to report their whereabouts will be contacted by Skype or email. Skype video calls will be also used for random checks to confirm whether people are self-isolating where they should be. Quarantine can be done at home or other locations of the individual’s choosing.

How does it work from the operational side?

The HCO has some 100 officials who send messages to confirm locations at least once a day, call people placed under quarantine and supervise the center’s operations.

The number of people entering Japan in February, including Japanese and foreign nationals, dropped significantly to just 34,751, according to the Justice Ministry.

Officials check to see if people entering Japan have installed a location-tracking app on their smartphones at Narita Airport on March 18. | KYODO
Officials check to see if people entering Japan have installed a location-tracking app on their smartphones at Narita Airport on March 18. | KYODO

But resources may become stretched once Japan relaxes its entry restrictions.

The figure in December, when Japan had relaxed its entry ban, was 127,343, giving a hint of what it could be in the months to come.

“We’re currently working on an improved system that would catch if someone has left the place of quarantine” with higher accuracy, a health ministry official in charge of anti-coronavirus measures said, adding that the ministry is planning to increase the number of staff.

How are other countries enforcing quarantine after overseas travel?

It has been a headache for other countries as well, prompting some governments to adopt rigorous quarantine measures and enforce penalties for violators.

For instance, anyone arriving in the U.K. must quarantine for 10 days, undergo tests for COVID-19 and follow national lockdown rules. Those who breach quarantine rules may face a penalty of up to £10,000 (about ¥1.5 million) or imprisonment.

Meanwhile, Singapore last year introduced electronic tags to ensure that incoming travelers, including citizens and foreign residents, comply with local quarantine regulations. According to media reports, a Singapore court last month sentenced a British man to two weeks in jail after he sneaked out of his hotel room to meet his then-fiancee while under quarantine.

Is the new tracking system effective in curbing the spread of the new coronavirus, including the new variants?

Yes, to an extent. But not completely.

The government has high hopes that the technology will help with surveillance. But the app may not necessarily help achieve 100% location accuracy, as there is a margin of error up to 100 meters.

What is more important, a health ministry official overseeing quarantine procedures said, was whether those who are supposed to self-isolate after entering Japan actually adhere to the rules.

In fact, many people coming from abroad have said that they were told it was all right to visit a convenience store, a supermarket or a drugstore outside busy hours if they could not find anyone to help them purchase food or necessities.

Officials hope that the written assurance they are obligated to sign, pledging they will abide by the rules, will be a deterrent.

A revised quarantine law also says that anyone who gives false information may face up to six months of imprisonment or a fine of up to ¥500,000. Health ministry officials, however, see the penalties for noncompliance as a last resort.

New variants in Japan

As of March 23, there have been 649 reported cases of the new variants of the coronavirus, which are believed to be up to 70% more transmissible, since the first case in December when a Japanese man arriving from Britain tested positive.

He was found to have dined with a group of people within the first few days after returning home, spreading the new strain of the virus to other participants of the gathering.

Back then, the 14-day self-isolation period was merely a nonbinding voluntary request. But with the spread of the variants, Japan has adopted stricter measures for those entering the nation from abroad regardless of nationality. They must:

  • Submit negative COVID-19 test results before they depart for Japan
  • Undergo another coronavirus test after arrival
  • Sign a written assurance that they will adhere to all quarantine rules

If they don’t comply, they may have their names disclosed, or even have their residence status revoked if the individual is a foreign resident.

People arriving from 26 countries where the new variant is rampant will need to undergo further measures, namely staying at a designated facility and taking a further test for the virus on the third day after entering the country.

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