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Amid a rapid increase in COVID-19 cases stemming from the omicron variant, Japan will extend until the end of February its stringent border controls that basically bar new entry by foreign nationals, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Tuesday.

Since Nov. 30, the country has mainly only admitted Japanese nationals and returning foreign residents in an effort to delay the spread of the omicron variant.

“Because of the strictest border restrictions among the Group of Seven nations, we have been able to minimize the influx of the omicron variant and buy time to prepare for a surge in domestic cases,” Kishida told reporters.

The prime minister said the government will maintain “the framework” of the current border restrictions until the end of next month.

While Japan will not accept newly arriving foreign nationals and will keep its daily cap on arriving passengers at 3,500, it will ease some other restrictions.

For instance, foreign nationals from 11 high-risk countries with the omicron variant will now be allowed to re-enter, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said.

Those 11 countries are Angola, Botswana, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Namibia.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida speaks to reporters in Tokyo on Tuesday. | KYODO
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida speaks to reporters in Tokyo on Tuesday. | KYODO

Matsuno hinted that the government may relax restrictions for international students given that some of them will soon be graduating.

The government has permitted entry under exceptional circumstances, with diplomats as well as spouses and children of Japanese and permanent residents given approval. Other foreign nationals can be granted entry for humanitarian reasons.

Although the government had relaxed restrictions on Nov. 8 to accept new entries by foreign business travelers, students and technical trainees, that was put on hold after omicron was detected in South Africa.

Japan detected its first omicron case on Nov. 30, and since the start of the new year infections have grown rapidly. On Saturday, the nationwide daily tally exceeded 8,000 for the first time in about four months. As of Tuesday, there were 100 severely ill patients, according to the health ministry.

The government last week decided to issue a quasi-state of emergency in Hiroshima, Yamaguchi and Okinawa prefectures.

Kishida also vowed to accelerate the vaccination drive, saying the government will further speed up the rollout of booster shots for not only the elderly but also the rest of the general public. To do that, the government will again set up state-run mass vaccination facilities.

The prime minister added that he will ask local governments to administer vaccinations at a faster pace, as there are 9 million shots ready to be distributed.

Kansai International Airport in Osaka Prefecture on Jan. 3 | KYODO
Kansai International Airport in Osaka Prefecture on Jan. 3 | KYODO

Because the omicron variant is spreading among youths and children, Kishida urged young people to get vaccinated.

Kishida also said that children under 12 years old will be able to receive an inoculation if their parents wish them to get their shots. Children that young have not previously been covered by the vaccination program.

On Monday, Kishida met with Shigeru Omi, head of the government panel in charge of the COVID-19 response, and other experts. Omi requested that the government further bring forward the administration of booster shots for elderly people as a top priority and swiftly establish a system to distribute oral drugs against COVID-19.

Since some data has suggested that the omicron variant may be highly infectious but less severe compared with the delta version, Kishida said treating infected individuals with mild or no symptoms at home or designated facilities will be key to reducing the burden on the health care system.

There are about 16,000 medical institutions that treat individuals at home or designated facilities, Kishida said, adding that the figure exceeds the planned target by more than 30%.

On top of the beefed-up home care system, oral drugs will also greatly help the country get through a tough situation, Kishida said. The government has distributed oral COVID-19 drugs made by U.S. pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. to about 7,500 medical institutions and drug stores, enabling the treatment of 20,000 individuals.

Information from Jiji added. Staff writer Satoshi Sugiyama contributed to this report.

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