Japan suspends travel campaign amid infection surge

Record numbers of coronavirus cases have forced Japan's Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide to suspend a domestic travel initiative designed to boost the economy. The "Go To" campaign will be halted during the year-end holiday season in a bid to stem infections.

"We decided to take the utmost measures to stem the further spread of infections and reduce the burden on hospitals so that people will be able to welcome a calm and peaceful new year," said Suga, who announced the decision at a government task force meeting on Monday.

He said the discounted travel campaign is suspended between December 28 and January 11. Infection hotspots Sapporo and Osaka had already been removed from the "Go To" destination list; Tokyo and Nagoya will now have the same designation until December 27. Suga called on residents of the four cities to refrain from travel.

The campaign was launched in October with the aim of boosting the pandemic-hit economy. Travelers across the country have since been enjoying subsidized vacations.

Suga Yoshihide
Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide announced the suspension of the "Go To" travel campaign.

Despite the decision to suspend the campaign, Suga remains unconvinced it has contributed to the surge in infections. When asked if the government has changed its view that there is no evidence showing a link between "Go To" and rising infections, Suga replied that the government's coronavirus advisory panel says travel should not necessarily be blamed for the surge in cases.

Some lawmakers have a different opinion. The secretary general of the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, Fukuyama Tetsuro, is critical of the government's position. He blames "Go To" for spreading the coronavirus across the nation and says Suga is too attached to the campaign.

Graph: Covid-19 daily cases in Japan

Infections spread at record rates

Like many other nations, Japan is dealing with a third coronavirus wave that shows no sign of abating. There were 17,694 new cases and 242 deaths in the week ending December 13. Both are record highs. The number of new weekly cases per week topped 10,000 for the first time during the first half of November.

The government imposed strict guidelines with a state-of-emergency declaration that was in effect in April and May. During that period, people were advised to stay at home unless necessary. Then-Prime Minister Abe Shinzo called on people to reduce contact with others by 70 to 80%.

But Professor Wada Koji of the International University of Health and Welfare says this time around, the government has not set any specific figures as it tries to slow the spread. He notes there has been no reduction in the movement of people because the government has largely left it to individuals to decide for themselves.

Suga under pressure as approval rate falls

Graph: Approval rate

An NHK opinion poll shows that the approval rate for the Suga Cabinet has dropped to 42%, down 14 points from last month. The disapproval rate rose to 36%, up 17 points.

Respondents were asked about the government's response to the outbreak, with 41% giving a positive assessment and 56% with a negative view. It's the first negative majority answer to that question since Suga took the top job in September.

Regarding a government plan to extend the "Go To" campaign, just 12% were in favor, while 79% called for its suspension.

The NHK telephone poll targeted 2,164 adults chosen at random. It was conducted last weekend with a 58% response rate, or 1,249 people.