Focus Shifts from Economic Revitalization to Infection Prevention

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga talks to reporters on Monday night.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s decision to suspend the Go To Travel tourism promotion campaign nationwide ahead of the New Year holidays signals a change in direction to prioritization of infection prevention measures amid a spike in novel coronavirus cases.

Suga, who had been trying to strike a balance between infection prevention and economic revitalization, now finds himself in a difficult position.

“Focused action can be taken during the year-end and New Year holidays. I made the decision based on my belief that this was a good opportunity,” Suga told reporters Monday after the government’s COVID-19 task force meeting.

According to government officials, coordination for the nationwide suspension began behind the scenes on Sunday, the day before the decision was made.

Until Monday, the prime minister’s basic policy was to continue the campaign positioned as a catalyst for economic revitalization, with a commitment to “preventing an explosive spread of the virus.”

However, on Friday, a panel of experts proposed a suspension of the government’s Go To Travel campaign for areas where the coronavirus situation is in Stage 3, the second-highest level on the four-tier virus alert system. The following day, Tokyo reported a daily record 621 new coronavirus cases, while the number of new cases nationwide exceeded 3,000.

It is the fourth time the government has revised the tourism campaign since it was launched nationwide. The series of revisions has been attributed to Suga’s belief that the campaign is not the main cause of the infection spike.

“In no time, Go To [Travel] has become something bad,” he said during an internet program on Friday, expressing disappointment.

Even after he decided to change the policy on Monday, Suga told reporters: “Travel is not the reason for the infection spike; that perspective is unchanged. However, the reality is that there were 3,000 newly confirmed cases, and [suspension of the campaign is] suggested by the experts.”

Concerns have been expressed about suspending the program during a busy period for the tourism industry.

“As well as disrupting the plans of people who wanted to use the campaign, the suspension could lead to an economic slump and fail to stop the spread of the virus,” a government official said.

■ ‘Crucial 3 weeks’ ends in failure

As the end approaches of the government-set “critical three weeks” to curb the infection spike, the number of new coronavirus cases continues to rise across the country. The medical system is under increasing strain, with hospital bed capacity tight among other serious problems.

As of Dec. 8, the occupancy rate of hospital beds secured for the pandemic rose in 29 prefectures from the previous week, according to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry. The average occupancy rate nationwide was 32.7%, 2.6 points higher than the previous week.