Japan keeps border controls in COVID surge

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  • Fumio Kishida
    100th~101st Prime Minister of Japan

Japan will keep its borders closed to most foreign citizens through February as it accelerates coronavirus booster shots for the elderly and expands hospital capacity to cope with the surging Omicron variant, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida says.

Japan briefly eased border controls in November after COVID-19 cases rapidly declined, but quickly reinstated a ban on most foreign entrants after the highly transmissible new variant emerged.

Kishida said the stringent border controls have helped slow the variant's spread and "bought time" to prepare for an imminent surge.

Japan had few cases until late December, but infections have since shot up to thousands a day.

Last week, Kishida placed three prefectures where infections apparently spread from US military bases -- Okinawa, Yamaguchi and Hiroshima -- under a pre-emergency status in which eateries were requested to shorten service hours.

But the rollout of booster vaccines, which started with medical workers in December, has been slow. As of Friday, only 0.6 per cent of Japan's population has received a third shot, prompting experts to urge the government to speed up doses for elderly people.

Health Minister Shigeyuki Goto on Tuesday attributed the delay to preparations by local municipalities, rather than shortages of imported vaccines.

Kishida said government and municipal mass vaccination centres will be set up to speed the booster shots.

A further upsurge in cases is feared following the New Year holidays and a three-day weekend, a time for travelling and parties for many Japanese.

On Monday, Tokyo reported 871 new COVID-19 cases, an eight-fold increase from a week earlier. Nationwide, Japan reported 6438 new cases for an accumulated total of about 1.77 million, including about 18,400 deaths.

Experts say a majority of the cases are now caused by Omicron.

Kishida noted that there still are many "unknowns" about Omicron, but it could be milder and less fatal than previous variants.

That could mean that more patients will stay at home. The government has been working to reinforce remote monitoring and medical care by community doctors, Kishida said.

"We will respond flexibly to new findings," Kishida said. "What's important is to protect people's lives."

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