Japan will not need to reimpose restrictions on food establishments and public events — even during a state of emergency — thanks to a so-called vaccine-test package, the central government’s coronavirus subcommittee announced in a set of proposals Tuesday morning.
If approved Friday, the package will clear a path to major changes in the way residents are able to dine out, watch sports games, attend large events in person and enjoy themselves in public places during large COVID-19 outbreaks. The system may not only prevent or minimize a sixth and subsequent waves, but could soften the economic impact of future outbreaks.
Amid concerns about infections in public places, the plan is a key part of the country’s campaign to begin reviving the economy — by bolstering food, travel, entertainment and other domestic industries — before a possible sixth wave of the pandemic strikes, maybe this winter.
“Breakthrough infections do happen and tests aren’t perfectly accurate, so certain countermeasures will continue to be necessary even where the vaccine-test package is in use,” Shigeru Omi, chair of the coronavirus advisory body, said Tuesday following a subcommittee meeting with government officials.
Omi stressed the importance of preventing discrimination and the unfair treatment of people who haven’t been vaccinated. He also said that, while it hasn’t yet been decided when the package will come into effect, it’s important that the matter be discussed soon.
Government officials said the package will require individuals to present proof that they’ve been vaccinated — and that more than two weeks have passed since they received their second dose — or that they have tested negative for COVID-19.
The package will not be implemented at schools, officials said.
Experts on the subcommittee emphasized that being vaccinated doesn’t eliminate the risk of infection completely, and told officials to consider suspending the vaccine-test package system if and when an outbreak worsens, Omi said.
On paper, the package will allow people to enter bars, restaurants and other establishments within usual business hours and with no restrictions on the number of people in their group. The package has already been trialed on a limited basis for some sporting events, and it could enable venues to allow fans at 100% capacity if all attendees produce proof of vaccination or a negative result.
“It’s possible now to relax the various restrictions implemented during past states of emergency,” Daishiro Yamagiwa, the minister in charge of the country’s coronavirus response, said Tuesday, pointing to progress made in the country’s vaccine rollout, as well as the development of COVID-19 treatments that could soon be made publicly available.
Over the past 23 months, dining establishments across Japan have been subject to various countermeasures that were strengthened and weakened in parallel with the ebb and flow of different pandemic waves. At times, restaurants and bars were urged to close early and suspend the sale of alcohol, while at others they were directed to close their doors completely, for weeks in some cases, at the risk of incurring a hefty financial penalty should they disobey.
Tuesday’s policy proposal comes amid an unprecedented fall in domestic cases of COVID-19 but a downturn in the economy.
Tokyo reported seven new cases Monday — the lowest daily count of the year — after the city had been reporting less than 50 cases a day for more than a month. The same day, the Cabinet Office announced that the economy had contracted for the first time in two quarters.
While the central government is expected to reach its goal of vaccinating all willing recipients by the end of November, the need for booster shots — which the country will begin administering in early December — raises questions about how long the pandemic will last.
Officials aim to convince unwilling recipients to get vaccinated by rolling back restrictions exclusively for those who have been inoculated or test negative.
As the virus wanes, the country is looking to breathe life into the private sector by raising spending on food, entertainment and travel.
Tourism minister Tetsuo Saito said Tuesday that the vaccine-test package will be utilized with the Go To Travel campaign, a controversial government program subsidizing domestic travel, which was suspended last year but could restart again in February.
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