• Kyodo

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In an abrupt about-face, the government has retracted an earlier decision and will allow examinees who had close contact with people infected with the omicron coronavirus variant to take school entrance exams if they have tested negative and have no symptoms.

The new decision, announced by the education ministry Monday, will apply to exams for state-run and private universities as well as for unified entrance exams next month, in a policy shift from previous guidelines barring such examinees from taking the tests. The new decision will also apply to exam takers for junior high school and high schools.

“We would like examinees to take thorough steps to prevent infection and universities to take all possible measures,” education minister Shinsuke Suematsu said during a news conference Monday.

The government already had the guidelines for allowing close-contact students to take an entrance exam if they have tested negative for the coronavirus, have no symptoms on the day of testing, avoid public transport and take the test in a separate room. The same conditions will be adopted for examinees who have had close contact with the omicron variant, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology said.

On Friday, the ministry said examinees who had close contact with the omicron variant will be barred from taking a test whether or not they had any symptoms, in line with the government policy of requiring 14 days of isolation for close contacts.

When asked why the policy had changed in just three days, Suematsu told reporters, “We should have taken a little more time to study the matter and should have made prearrangements with the Prime Minister’s Office.”

The move followed a similar reversal of decision when the government of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida withdrew earlier this month its request for airlines to stop taking reservations for inbound international flights in the wake of criticism the measure against the omicron variant went too far.

“It’s the same pattern,” a senior Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker said.

A government source also said the Kishida administration couldn’t leave the matter unresolved as criticism for the decision was bound to rise just before the exam season starts in January.

The guidelines not allowing close contacts of the omicron variant were compiled after Kishida said Dec. 21 that such people are required to quarantine in accommodation facilities for 14 days.

In making the guidelines, the education ministry decided that examinees shouldn’t be given different treatment from the general public, and notified universities of its decision on Friday. “We wanted to make a decision as soon as possible,” Suematsu explained.

During these procedures, the education ministry did not inform the Prime Minister’s Office about the decision, with an official close to Kishida saying, “We had no knowledge about it. We were surprised.”

After the guidelines were reported by media, examinees expressed their concerns, with one quoted as saying, “If I become a close contact, I can’t take the exam.”

According to Suematsu, the ministry began exploring the possibility of reviewing the guidelines Saturday.

The policy shift became clear Sunday after the prime minister ordered the ministry to ensure that examinees had the opportunity to take the entrance tests.

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