Japan loosens COVID-19 border barriers, lagging behind major partners

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Kimono-clad tourists wearing face masks are seen at a temple in Asakusa District, a popular tourist spot, amid the outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Tokyo, Japan, October 13, 2020. REUTERS / Issei Kato / Files

TOKYO, Nov. 2 (Reuters) – Japan on Tuesday confirmed plans to gradually ease COVID-19 border restrictions, but failed to respond to demands from business lobbies to open up in line with major trading partners .

By relaxing its controls, Japan will take a phased approach, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno told reporters, responding to media reports that quarantine periods for business travelers would be reduced from 10 to three days.

The easing could begin next Monday, as daily limits on the number of border entries would be raised to 5,000 people later this month, from 3,500, national broadcaster NHK said.

Domestic and foreign business groups have lobbied the government to ease border restrictions to match other countries. The United States and the European Union allow entry of travelers from most countries with proof of COVID-19 vaccination.

Overseas business groups welcomed the shorter quarantine, but said the easing did not go far enough.

A bigger issue is maintaining long-term visas, said Michael Mroczek, president of the European Business Council in Japan.

“Not being able to bring essential personnel to Japan is currently the number one problem for European industry,” he said.

Christopher LaFleur, adviser to the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ACCJ), said detente was “necessary to revive Japan’s economic recovery from the damage of the pandemic.”

He added, “The ACCJ recommends that Japan accept recognized vaccinations and other health documents issued abroad.

Japan has reduced its quarantine period for those vaccinated to 10 days from 14 days last month when it lifted emergency measures across much of the country.

But while other countries have adopted vaccine passport systems to facilitate travel, Japan has stuck to its quarantine system. A chief executive had become a “quarantine monk,” he told Reuters last week, after three periods of isolation after trips abroad.

The ruling Liberal Democrats may think they have more leeway to reform border controls after Sunday’s election secured their grip on power, said Kenneth Mori McElwain, professor of political science at the University from Tokyo.

“The success of the LDP in the upper house election next summer will largely depend on the economic recovery,” McElwain said.

“While international travel does not make or destroy the economy, it is an easily observed metric that can shape public sentiment.”

COVID-19 cases have declined dramatically as vaccinations have covered more than 70% of the population. New infections in Tokyo fell to 9 Monday, from more than 5,000 each day during the August wave driven by the infectious variant Delta.

Vaccine checks and tests on international travel should be enough to reduce infections now that the pandemic has subsided, said Haruka Sakamoto, a doctor and researcher at Keio University.

“People who have received two doses of the vaccine should not be quarantined,” she said. “Strict border controls have a significant negative impact on Japanese businesses and international students.”

Elsewhere in Asia-Pacific, Australia and Thailand significantly eased their border restrictions on Monday, for the first time in 18 months.

Reporting by Rocky Swift and Kantaro Komiya; Editing by Kim Coghill and Richard Pullin

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.


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