Infectious disease experts weighed in on the government’s decision on Saturday to review its Go To Travel tourism promotion campaign, criticizing the decision as being too late and likely to have little effect in preventing the spread of COVID. 19.
“The review arrived late. It should have been conducted at least two weeks ago,” Yoshito Niki, visiting professor of infectious diseases at Showa University, said on Saturday.
“Right now, Hokkaido and Tokyo are in stage 3 situations where infected people are on the rise,” Niki said, referring to the second-worst level on Japan’s four-level scale to measure the spread of the deadly virus.
Tokyo reported 391 new cases of COVID-19 on Sunday, dropping below 500 for the first time in four days.
As part of the review, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said on Saturday that the government has decided to suspend new travel bookings under the Go To Travel grant program in areas where infections are on the rise.
The country’s virus task force previously recommended that the government consider reviewing the program. About 40 million people took advantage of the campaign from July 22 to October 31, according to the tourism agency.
But Suga and government officials have not said when the suspension of the travel campaign will begin and which areas will be affected.
The decision, taken without defining the details in advance, has caused confusion among local authorities, the tourism industry and the general public.
The government will try to unveil details in the coming days on how it will partially suspend the campaign, a senior government official said on Sunday.
“After deciding on a course of action in the next few days, we will implement (the new policy) by working with the prefectural governors,” Yasutoshi Nishimura, who heads the government’s response to the coronavirus, told NHK. “We can’t afford to wait a week or two.”
The lack of details on what the review will entail has baffled some experts.
“It is not known which regions the government considers to be the areas where the infections are growing,” Niki said. “There will be little effect of the measure unless movement from these areas is also interrupted.”
Perhaps most pressing, Niki said, was the apparent lack of sense of urgency among the population as the number of coronavirus cases hit record highs over the past week in several prefectures, including Tokyo, Osaka, Hyogo and Saitama.
“I cannot recognize a sense of crisis in our society given the movements of people on this first day of a three day weekend,” he said.
“Go To Travel should be completely stopped until the current third wave (of coronavirus infections) reaches its peak,” Niki said. “The government should immediately initiate effective measures to slow the spread of infections and send a strong message to the public.”
Erisa Sugawara, professor of infection control at Tokyo University of Health, said “the government appears to tolerate travel from areas where the virus is raging to areas where the number of cases of infection is relatively low.” .
According to Sugawara, the government should have considered stopping travel across prefectural borders for now.
“A more radical review should have been done,” she said.
Japan had 313 critically ill COVID-19 patients nationwide on Saturday, according to the health ministry. The number is still below the peak of 328 recorded on April 30.
“We have to give high marks to the success of keeping the number of critically ill patients relatively low,” she said. “But when winter arrives, air temperatures and humidity drop, making it easier to catch the new coronavirus.”
Sugawara said that it can be predicted that if the number of virus carriers increases, patients with severe symptoms will also start to increase a little later.
“The government should now take measures to restrict the movement of people,” she added.