IMPORTANT NOTE: Japan reversed this decision the next day.
In a stunning move, the transportation ministry Wednesday directed airlines to halt reservations for incoming flights to Japan for one month amid growing fears over the omicron coronavirus variant.
The ministry described the move as “an emergency measure” and said that it will also apply to Japanese nationals. People with existing bookings will still be able to fly into Japan.
“New flight reservations have been suspended, but we hope to cooperate with the transportation ministry to allow Japanese nationals to return home,” a senior administration official said Wednesday evening.
The nation’s two largest carriers, All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines, accepted the ministry’s request, NHK reported.
The decision came after the country reported a second case of the omicron variant. The strain was detected in a male in his 20s who returned from Peru and landed at Narita Airport in Tokyo on Saturday.
Health ministry officials told reporters Wednesday evening that the number of individuals deemed possible contacts had climbed from 71 on Tuesday to 114 the following day, owing to the second reported case of the omicron variant. Officials said all 114 individuals are being quarantined in government-designated facilities.
Earlier Wednesday, Matsuno announced the central government would ban all foreign inbound travelers — including foreign residents returning to the country — from South Africa and nine other nations in the region effective Thursday.
Beginning Thursday, all foreign arrivals from South Africa, Eswatini (formerly known as Swaziland), Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia and Angola will be denied entry into Japan for one month, barring exceptional circumstances.
The restrictions do not apply to Japanese nationals returning from those 10 countries, but those citizens will be required to isolate at a government-designated facility for 10 days — followed by four more days at a location of their choosing — and be tested for COVID-19 every three to four days.
Wednesday’s announcements are a drastic turnaround from Japan’s restrictions throughout most of the past year, during which the country banned foreign travelers but allowed foreign residents and Japanese nationals to re-enter the country.
The controversial moves came a day after the country reported its first case of the omicron variant, only hours after the central government banned all foreign travelers except foreign residents, their spouses or children. But Prime Minister Fumio Kishida faced continued pressure from ruling and opposition parties to tighten border rules that were already considered to be some of the strictest in the world.
“We will work quickly to gain more knowledge of the situation in each country, and to respond accordingly,” Matsuno said.
Japanese nationals and foreign residents traveling from seven additional countries where the omicron variant has been detected will need to be isolated at a designated facility for six days. The seven countries are Israel, Italy, the U.K., the Netherlands, Trinidad and Tobago, Venezuela and Peru.
Those re-entering from another 31 countries and regions will have to isolate at a designated facility for three days upon returning to Japan and self-isolate at home or a place of their choosing for another 11 days.
Japan lifted some of its travel restrictions less than a month ago, paving the way for foreign students, foreign technical interns and business travelers to enter the country after months of waiting. But the detection in South Africa of the omicron variant — a new strain of the coronavirus about which little is known as of yet — triggered a flurry of border measures from countries around the world.
Numerous countries imposed travel restrictions on inbound travel from a slew of African nations. Japan, which had initially banned new foreign travelers from countries where the new variant was detected over the weekend, expanded the order Tuesday to encompass foreign travelers from every country in the world.
Research into the transmissibility and nature of the omicron variant remains in the early stages. But the unprecedented number of mutations the new variant has — even more than the delta variant, which is twice as contagious as the original strain of the coronavirus — suggests the possibility that it could spread further and faster.
Countries are sealing their borders to buy time as the world awaits credible data.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Japan’s strict border policy has, at times, been criticized as discriminatory against foreign nationals and unscientific.
Wednesday’s decision came after voices of dissatisfaction grew within Kishida’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
On Tuesday, Norihisa Tamura, chair of the party’s coronavirus task force and a former health minister, pointed out according to Jiji Press that the number of foreign nationals entering Japan “will not become zero,” and said the country “cannot let its guard down.”
Yasutoshi Nishimura, who until last month was the minister leading the country’s COVID-19 response, tweeted that the government should consider further lowering the 3,500 daily cap on inbound travelers until more is known about the omicron variant.
On Monday, the health ministry announced that the country’s daily entry cap, which had been raised to 5,000 last week, will be lowered to 3,500 again on Wednesday.
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