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Doctors, carers rage as Japan keeps 'Go To Travel' offers for people from virus-hit areas

The Dotonbori area of the city of Osaka is bustling with shoppers during a three-day weekend, on Nov. 23, 2020. (Mainichi/Takao Kitamura)

TOKYO -- Medical professionals and care home workers are voicing anger over the central government's decision not to temporarily suspend travel from Tokyo and other areas where coronavirus infections are surging under its "Go To Travel" subsidy campaign aimed at reviving the pandemic-hit tourism sector.

    While the city of Osaka in western Japan and the Hokkaido capital of Sapporo in the northernmost prefecture -- which are both witnessing a virus resurgence -- were temporarily excluded from the Go To Travel program, the suspension is limited to trips destined to those cities from other areas.

    Shigeru Omi, chairman of the government's coronavirus countermeasures subcommittee, has expressed the view that the infection statuses in Tokyo's 23 wards and the central Japan city of Nagoya were equivalent to Stage 3, the second most serious level. However, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike has not requested a temporary suspension of the Go To program for the capital, saying, "It's the national government that should be making the decision." The Aichi Prefectural Government has taken a similar position for Nagoya.

    "They may be considering the economic impact, but from the standpoint of infection prevention, the campaign brings only negative effects," said Masashi Ito, director of Tojun Hospital in Tokyo's Adachi Ward.

    The hospital has conducted polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests on patients who have complained of COVID-19 symptoms. While the number of PCR tests given at the hospital stood at around 40 per week until October, the figure spiked to some 120 per week in November. There are also rising numbers of patients who have been taken to the hospital for emergency care by ambulance, imposing an increased strain on medical staff.

    Last week, there was a case in which three participants on a bus trip to another prefecture tested positive for the coronavirus.

    "There is no way the national and local governments can check if coronavirus prevention measures are being thoroughly implemented in tourist destinations. If they want to prioritize safety, they should restrict the (Go To) program in Tokyo and other areas as soon as possible," Ito said, calling for a further review of the program.

    Meanwhile, many nursing care homes are still barring families and others from visiting residents at those facilities amid the coronavirus crisis.

    A Tokyo-based business that operates nursing homes across Japan basically does not allow people living in major cities like Tokyo and Osaka to visit their family members at care facilities in regional areas due to virus concerns. Instead, those facilities allow online meetings between residents and families using tablets.

    Employees at those care homes are also voluntarily refraining from traveling out of fear of possible infection, with hardly anyone benefitting from the Go To campaign. A staff member of the operator of those facilities said, "We have beefed up PCR testing of our employees, but it has cost us several million yen (tens of thousands of dollars) to conduct testing. Although I think it is important to get the economy moving, we hope that the government will provide generous support including subsidies for PCR test costs."

    Norio Sugaya, a doctor at Keiyu Hospital in Yokohama, who specializes in infectious diseases, was critical of the government continuing with the Go To campaign. "Looking at the state of infections now, we're not in a phase to choose which areas to exclude from the program; we are at a stage where it should be suspended entirely. It is not the time for the government to encourage people to travel," he said.

    With the onset of winter, infectious diseases are more likely to spread. "If the government keeps encouraging people to travel under the Go To campaign, coronavirus outbreaks could spread across the country," he warned.

    (Japanese original by Nobuyuki Shimada, City News Department, and Eri Misono, Lifestyle and Medical News Department)

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