Japan sees new highs in Covid-19 cases in tourist hotspots

Japan PM Yoshihide Suga insisted that the Go To Travel campaign should not be made a scapegoat for the third Covid-19 wave.
Japan PM Yoshihide Suga insisted that the Go To Travel campaign should not be made a scapegoat for the third Covid-19 wave.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

TOKYO - Japan busted its one-day tally of Covid-19 infections on Wednesday (Dec 9) with at least 2,810 cases, marked by new highs in tourist hotspots like Kyoto and Hiroshima.

The number of active serious cases also rose to 555, setting a new record for the third consecutive day and doubling in three weeks.

These unwanted records will likely mount pressure on Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who has been insisting that the Go To Travel campaign that provides massive subsidies for domestic tourists should not be made a scapegoat for the third wave of Covid-19 cases.

As his Cabinet approval tumbled in three separate media polls over the weekend, with more people disapproving of his government response to Covid-19 than in support, his government is standing firm on the scheme.

On Tuesday, the government approved a third stimulus package worth 73.6 trillion yen (S$945 billion), including a top up of 1.35 trillion yen to fund an extension of the Go To Travel scheme to June next year, from the original end date of January.

The government did not consult its own Covid-19 advisory panel of medical experts on the extension, nor listen to their advice.

Dr Shigeru Omi, who leads the panel, on Wednesday again urged the government to take more decisive action: "I've repeatedly suggested that the Go To program should be stopped in the current infection situation."

And the government had also rubbished a scientific study by a team of researchers, including Dr Atsushi Miyawaki of the Graduate School of Medicine at the University of Tokyo, that drew a conclusive link between the Go To Travel campaign and the rise in cases.

It was the first such study to do so, and would put paid to Mr Suga's claims that there has been no proof that the campaign was to blame.

Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura, Japan's pointman for Covid-19 strategy, said on Tuesday that the study was inconclusive because it was not peer-reviewed.

He also dismissed it as fundamentally flawed, noting that the 28,000 respondents aged between 15 and 79 had not taken polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests.

He argued that they were merely asked if they had exhibited symptoms of Covid-19, including fever, cough, headache, sore throat, and the loss of sense of taste and smell.

"Exhibiting Covid-19 symptoms clearly does not mean that one is necessarily infected with the coronavirus," he said. "This is an important point. The researchers only asked about symptoms."

In the study conducted from Aug 25 to Sept 30, respondents were asked if they had taken part in the Go To Travel campaign, and whether they had Covid-19 symptoms.

The researchers found "the users of government subsidies for domestic travel experienced a higher incidence of symptoms indicative of the Covid-19 infection."

They stressed that PCR tests were not a catch-all, and that symptoms unique to Covid-19 would serve as a good proxy as "PCR testing will underestimate the true number of infections because not everyone with symptoms indicative of Covid-19 is tested."

The clash between politics and science comes as cases remain on the rise throughout the country, though Mr Suga is reluctant to cripple an economy on the rebound from a nationwide state of emergency earlier this year.

Hiroshima and Kyoto, which added 77 and 75 new cases respectively, were among five prefectures that set new one-day highs. Aichi, where the industrial city of Nagoya is located, also set a new record with 245 cases.

Tokyo recorded 572 new cases, in its second-highest daily tally ever. Osaka, which declared a medical "red alert" and on Monday asked for back-up from Self-Defence Forces nurses, logged 427 new cases in the prefecture's third-highest daily caseload ever.

Hokkaido, which also sought reinforcement from military nurses for its second-largest city Asahikawa, added 197 new cases and extended its prefecture-wide request for residents to avoid non-essential outings by two weeks, until Dec 25.

The Mainichi daily urged the government to rethink the Go To Travel campaign and "apply the brakes when appropriate", rather than persisting on a dangerous course.