The government on Thursday announced a pandemic exit strategy that will ease restrictions on travel, dining and public events for vaccinated people in a bid to reignite the economy, restore public morale and incentivize inoculations.
The plan will reportedly begin on an experimental basis as early as October and then become fully operational in November. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has said that by November vaccines will have been administered to all people who wish to receive a shot.
Earlier Thursday, Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister leading the country’s pandemic response, announced that the country’s state of emergency will be extended in 19 prefectures from Sunday until Sept. 30.
Experts and advisers have been advocating a carrot-and-stick approach since last year. But critics say that revealing an exit strategy — or even discussing one — during an ongoing wave will send the wrong message, a pitfall the central government hopes to avoid.
“New cases may appear to be declining but it’s crucial that the public does not let its guard down,” Nishimura said during the opening remarks of the COVID-19 subcommittee meeting Thursday.
The plan represents the most comprehensive conception to date of the administration’s vision for a future with COVID-19.
According to the exit strategy, the government will look to peel back attendance limits on large public events and revive the Go To Travel campaign — a controversial government-funded program that was canceled in late 2020 amid heavy criticism — but only for people who can prove they are fully inoculated or have recently tested negative for COVID-19.
Restaurants, bars and other dining establishments — which have been asked to close early and stop serving alcohol whenever a state of emergency or quasi-emergency measure is in effect — will eventually be able to serve alcohol to vaccinated people without fear of punishment, as long as they maintain virus precautions.
Vaccinated people will no longer be discouraged from traveling across prefectural borders once the plan has taken effect.
The central philosophy of the plan is to gradually roll back countermeasures according to the potential foot traffic and infection risk of any given location while maintaining basic precautions, such as mask-wearing and the installation of hand sanitizers and thermometers at the entrances of public facilities.
The plan will rely on vaccine passports or some other document that verifies an individual is fully inoculated. Business owners could be allowed to issue discounts, coupons and other benefits exclusively to vaccine passport holders.
Proof of vaccination or a negative virus test result could be required at places such as hospitals, nursing homes and other medical facilities, as well as for activities like traveling across prefectural borders for business or vacation, attending large public events and participating in after-school activities.
Officials are still unsure whether a similar program should be applied to restaurants and bars.
The fifth wave of the pandemic appears to be waning in parts of Japan, but several large cities remain inundated with patients.
The state of emergency — active in 21 prefectures through Sept. 12 — was extended Thursday in 19 prefectures until the end of September due to the strain on local health care systems. In Miyagi and Okayama, the state of emergency will be downgraded to quasi-emergency measures.
Quasi-emergency measures active in 12 prefectures were extended in six of them until the end of September.
On Wednesday, the health ministry announced a new set of guidelines to determine if and when a state of emergency should be lifted. New cases, deaths and other indicators of the outbreak’s trajectory had previously been the basis of such decisions.
The central government will now pay greater attention to the state of local health care systems, specifically the occupancy rate of hospital beds for COVID-19 patients that are mildly, moderately or severely ill, as well as the burden on routine treatment and surgeries for patients not infected with the coronavirus.
According to the new guidelines, a state of emergency can be lifted in prefectures where, among other factors, the following is true:
- Hospital bed occupancy for all COVID-19 patients is below 50%
- Hospital bed occupancy for severely ill COVID-19 patients is below 50%
- The number of patients recovering at home or waiting to be hospitalized is lower than 60 people per 100,000 residents in major cities
However, in the past these guidelines have been treated as flexible benchmarks rather than a strict set of criteria.
The country previously endured three states of emergency and four waves of the pandemic. As Japan looks to extricate itself from the current emergency, past attempts to reopen society may illustrate the risks.
In June 2020, in the days and weeks after the country’s first state of emergency was lifted in late May, Tokyo followed a multiphase plan to reboot its economy by incrementally lifting social distancing measures and business closure requests.
By July, however, a second wave had begun to grow, with the number of cases eventually reaching nearly triple the amount reported during the first.
After the third wave — which lasted roughly from late October until March — the country tried to prevent a rebound by introducing quasi-emergency measures, which call on businesses to reduce operating hours but not close altogether, as can be requested during a state of emergency.
Despite these steps to put society back on course, highly transmissible variants of the coronavirus ignited a fourth wave. The same quasi-emergency measures failed to prevent a fifth wave, which began as a rebound in the capital but soon spread nationwide.
According to the government’s COVID-19 exit strategy, vaccinated people will no longer be discouraged from doing the following:
- Meeting with patients at hospitals and nursing homes
- Commuting to the office if they are a doctor, nurse or other staffer at a medical facility
- Traveling beyond prefectural borders for business or recreation
- Attending large-scale events
- Attending university classes in person
- Holding extracurricular school activities
- Dining in public to celebrate milestones such as school admissions and graduation
- Dining in public after a funeral, wedding or school entrance or graduation ceremony
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