Japan's PM to suspend travel campaign around New Year to contain virus

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said the travel subsidy programme dubbed “Go To Travel” would be suspended nationwide around the New Year to contain mounting COVID-19 cases, as his approval rating plummets over the handling of the pandemic.

FILE PHOTO: Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks during a news conference in Tokyo, Japan December 4, 2020. Hiro Komae/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

Speaking at a coronavirus meeting on Monday to discuss plans for the much-criticized travel campaign, Suga said he would temporarily halt the programme from Dec. 28 to Jan. 11.

The premier also said the capital Tokyo, Osaka, Sapporo and Nagoya, where infections have been rising, would be removed as eligible destinations for the travel campaign until Dec. 27.

He even urged those departing these cities to refrain from using the travel subsidy campaign.

“We will take the utmost measures to prevent further spread of infections at the year-end and the New Year, to ease the burdens at medical institutions and to make sure everyone can spend a calm new year,” he told the meeting.

The suspension marks a major shift in strategy by Suga who has insisted on the merit of and need to stay with the campaign to help revive the economy, much to the consternation of some critics who believe it may help spread the virus.

Earlier on Monday, top government spokesman Katsunobu Kato said that while the government aimed to promote economic activity, it also wanted to prevent the spread of infections, and that the “balance depends on the situation in each region”.

Japan has not seen the kind of massive outbreaks that have hit the United States and parts of Europe, but infections have worsened as winter has set in, particularly in regions such as the northern island of Hokkaido and the city of Osaka.

The country recorded more than 3,000 new infections for the first time in one day on Saturday and Tokyo, Japan’s largest city, confirmed 621 new cases.

Tokyo has asked bars and restaurants to close by 10 p.m. during a three-week period that ends this week. Governor Yuriko Koike is set to extend this period, Kyodo News reported.

Over the weekend, polls found public support for Suga had eroded over his handling of the pandemic. A Mainichi newspaper poll on Saturday had his approval rating at 40%, a 17 percentage point fall from last month, while his disapproval rating exceeded his approval rating for the first time.

Only three months in office after his predecessor Shinzo Abe abruptly resigned due to ill health, Suga has also come under pressure because of other controversies, including his rejection of scholars on a science advisory panel.

Reporting by Ju-min Park, Tetsushi Kajimoto and Takashi Umekawa; Editing by Antoni Slodkowski, Himani Sarkar and Richard Pullin