TOKYO - Japan will halt its Go To Travel domestic tourism campaign nationwide for two weeks, from Dec 28 to Jan 11, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said on Monday (Dec 14).
This marks a stunning U-turn as he caved in to public and expert criticism that his government was being foolhardy in recklessly pressing on with the scheme.
The suspension coincides with what is typically one of the busiest travel periods each year, with millions returning to their hometowns for family gatherings.
Mr Suga's balancing act between the economy and public health risks has long tilted towards boosting consumption, but he has seen his Cabinet approval ratings tumble over a perceived lack of leadership amid a surge in Covid-19 cases.
Support fell 14 points from last month to 42 per cent in a poll by public broadcaster NHK and by 17 points from last month to 40 per cent in a poll by Mainichi daily. Mr Suga had polled above 60 per cent in both media outlets when he took office in September.
With the honeymoon period clearly over and a general election due in 10 months, media reports cited sources saying the fast-eroding support prompted Mr Suga to take far more decisive action.
The sudden announcement of a nationwide halt goes beyond the recommendations of the government expert panel, which had for weeks called for firmer action in only the worst-hit areas like Tokyo.
Mr Suga had long said the Go To Travel subsidy scheme should not be a scapegoat for the surge in cases, arguing that there was no scientific evidence connecting the scheme with the surge in cases.
But even some in his government have questioned the wisdom of pressing on, given the mixed messaging to the public. An official told the Mainichi daily: "It's ridiculous to tell people to travel on the one hand, and at the same time tell them not to come in contact with other people."
Mobile data showed foot traffic increasing over the weekend - the last weekend of what Mr Suga once described as a "critical three-week battle" against Covid-19 - in bustling hubs such as Shibuya and Ginza in Tokyo, Umeda in Osaka and Sakae in Nagoya.
In the latest move, Osaka and Sapporo, where the travel subsidy scheme was halted since Nov 24, will have the suspension extended till Jan 11. Tokyo and Nagoya, which are facing a bed crunch, will be excluded from the scheme with immediate effect, until Jan 11.
"The nationwide number of infections continues to be high, and we are seeing more areas with infections spreading," Mr Suga said on Monday. "We must take utmost measures to protect lives, stem the spread of infections, and reduce the burden on hospitals."
He promised to double relief payments to doctors and nurses on the front line of the Covid-19 battlefield, as well as to food and beverage outlets that accede to requests to shorten business hours during what is otherwise the bumper holiday season.
The Prime Minister also said he will consider the next steps for the campaign - whose extension by six months to June was approved just last week - by reviewing the infection status next month.
The third wave of Covid-19 cases is by far the worst in Japan. Last Saturday, it recorded more than 3,000 new cases in a single day for the first time, led by a new high of 621 cases in Tokyo.
There were at least 1,681 new cases on Monday, though observers caution against reading too much into Monday's figures as they tend to be lower with fewer tests conducted over the weekend.
More critically, the number of serious patients on Monday reached a new high of 588 people.
Mr Suga pleaded to his people: "I ask everyone to take basic precautions, especially during meals, and to carefully consider whether to travel to their home towns during the holidays, so that we may have a peaceful new year."