Japan’s prime minister on Monday urged citizens to reconsider their holiday travel plans and suspended a controversial domestic tourism campaign as the country battles record numbers of coronavirus infections.
Yoshihide Suga also pledged more support for medical workers and institutions overwhelmed by the country’s third wave of cases, and promised expanded subsidies for restaurants and other struggling businesses.
Suga, who took office in September, has seen his approval ratings plunge in recent weeks in part over his handling of the new wave of cases and his refusal to heed calls to halt the Go To travel campaign.
But on Monday night he reversed course under increasing pressure, including from medical advisors to the government.
“We have decided to take the strongest steps possible in order to stop the spread of the infections … so that all of you can welcome the New Year in peace and quiet,” Suga told a special cabinet-level meeting on anti-pandemic measures.
He said the travel subsidy program would be suspended between December 28 and January 11, with the halt coming into effect earlier for hardest-hit areas, including the capital Tokyo.
He also urged the public to reconsider plans to visit relatives during the holiday season.
“I ask (the public) to carefully reconsider travel plans to return to home towns. I ask for your help so that all of us can spend a calm and quiet New Year,” he said.
The call came as Japan sees rising infections – standing around 3,000 new cases per day – with doctors and nurses warning they are overwhelmed.
A poll by national broadcaster NHK found 81% of respondents had no plans to travel or visit their parents during the new year period, traditionally a busy travel time in Japan.
Japan has been less hard-hit than many countries – with 177,960 infections and 2,584 deaths recorded since the first case in January – and has avoided the strict lockdowns seen elsewhere.
With cases falling over the summer, the government launched campaigns to encourage travel and eating out, but these have been under fire as infections have risen, hitting daily records.
The cabinet’s approval rating has plunged 17 points in the last month, to 40%, according to an opinion poll released Sunday by the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper.