Focus on swift action caused fiasco over flight-booking ban

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Minister Tetsuo Saito apologizes Thursday for the retraction of the ministry’s request that airlines stop accepting new bookings for international flights to Japan.

The transport ministry’s sudden request — and even more abrupt retraction of the request — that airlines stop accepting new bookings on international flights to Japan until the end of December has left a lot of question marks hanging over how information is shared within the government.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s Cabinet has unveiled a flurry of measures intended to combat the spread of the new omicron variant of the novel coronavirus, but the priority on taking action quickly caused confusion and resulted in a policy U-turn after just three days.

As Kishida arrived at the Prime Minister’s Office on Thursday morning, a group of reporters was waiting, armed with questions about the freeze on new flight bookings. When asked if the government’s plan had changed and even Japanese expatriates would be prevented from returning to Japan, Kishida’s expression hardened.

“I have been informed that the request was issued as an emergency measure,” Kishida said. “Unfortunately, it has caused confusion among some people.”

Kishida indicated that he had asked the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry to review the request and take into account the demand for seats among Japanese nationals wanting to return home.

About one hour later, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno held a press conference and announced that the ministry’s request had been withdrawn.

The transport ministry had issued the request to airlines on Monday. However, the prime minister was given a full run-down on the situation by a secretary only on Wednesday afternoon. By then, media outlets were reporting about exchange students and Japanese company employees working overseas who were worried that they would be unable to return to Japan this month. Alarmed by this situation, Kishida late that evening instructed the ministry to change the policy. Despite this, the inescapable impression was that the government’s handling of this issue was a shambles.

Independent decision

Ever since the matter of how to prevent the omicron variant from slipping into Japan became a high-priority item on the government’s agenda in late November, Kishida has been leading from the front on the nation’s countermeasures. On Monday, Kishida brushed aside hesitancy expressed by some government ministries and agencies, and announced that nonresident foreigners would be barred from entering Japan for one month, in principle. Kishida even stated that he was “fully prepared to shoulder all responsibility” for any criticism that he was being “overly cautious.”

Kishida’s bold decision reflected a lesson learned from the mistakes of his predecessors, Shinzo Abe and Yoshihide Suga, who both were criticized for flimsy border controls against the coronavirus. “Hard and swift” border control measures are the approach stressed by the Kishida Cabinet, and it is a message that government ministries and agencies have absorbed. Within the Prime Minister’s Office, the view that each ministry is now able to “move independently” had been gaining traction.

Amid all this, the transport ministry was under pressure to take steps. The government announced Monday a strengthening of border enforcement measures, which included a plan to lower the daily limit on the number of people entering Japan, including Japanese citizens, from about 5,000 to about 3,500. The government’s announcement also referred to “curbing new bookings” on inbound flights to Japan.

Demand for seats on flights to Japan in December is high among returning Japanese and other travelers. The ministry’s Civil Aviation Bureau wanted to avoid exceeding the 3,500-person limit, and was scrambling to “take action as quickly as possible.”

The bureau decided independently to issue a request that all new bookings be halted until the end of December.

The bureau had previously taken measures to halt bookings for several days to curb the total number of people arriving in Japan, all without passing this information up to the Prime Minister’s Office. However, asking all carriers to halt taking reservations for an entire month at the end of a year had never been done before.

“We lacked consideration,” a senior official at the bureau admitted Thursday.

‘Careless’ plan

A government task force headed by Matsuno, the chief cabinet secretary, was established to ensure the government’s response to the omicron variant operates smoothly, but it failed to effectively play its role.

On Wednesday afternoon, media reports had revealed the ministry’s request for a blanket ban on new reservations on inbound flights to Japan. However, Matsuno had been unable to confirm the suspension by the time he held a press conference later that day. When asked about details of the request, he replied simply that he would give an answer “later” after checking with administrative officials. The ministry briefed Matsuno for the first time at a meeting of the task force after the press conference.

Kishida and the ministry both had the same goal in mind: implementing tighter border controls. “But there were problems in how they went about this,” a senior official of the Cabinet Secretariat said.

On Thursday, Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Minister Tetsuo Saito apologized for the situation.

“The Civil Aviation Bureau issued a slightly careless plan,” Saito said at the ministry. “I regret that there was a period when information wasn’t properly shared.”