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Japan halts new entries from around world over new virus variant

This photo shows a deserted international departure lobby at Narita Airport on Dec. 28, 2020. (Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Japan suspended Monday new entries into the country by nonresident foreign nationals arriving from most of the world through the end of January to prevent the spread of new coronavirus variants, as its first case of a variant spreading in South Africa was confirmed following that of a new strain from Britain.

    The government will also require Japanese citizens and foreign residents coming from regions where new variants have been detected to submit negative virus test results from within 72 hours of departure and undergo tests upon arrival from Wednesday through the end of January.

    The health ministry said Monday that a woman in her 30s, who had travel history to South Africa, tested positive for the new strain first detected in the country.

    Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga told reporters Monday that the new restrictions are meant to "protect our citizens' lives and livelihoods, by taking measures in advance" to forestall the spread of the new virus strains.

    Businesspeople and students from Taiwan and 10 Asian nations including mainland China and South Korea with which Japan has a special scheme to ease travel restrictions are not affected by the latest measure.

    Starting late last week, Japan banned new entries by nonresident foreign nationals who have recently been to Britain and South Africa, where new variants have been detected.

    At a meeting of the government's COVID-19 task force Monday evening, Suga called on the public to continue exercising precautions such as mask wearing and frequent washing of hands, and to spend the New Year holidays "quietly."

    "Viruses do not take a break during the year-end and New Year season. I would like to ask for citizens to cooperate so we can return to life as normal as quickly as possible," he said.

    According to the government, Suga has canceled a trip to the Ise Jingu shrine in central Japan's Mie Prefecture on Jan. 4, a tradition for prime ministers, to reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus.

    On Monday, the health ministry confirmed that six people have been infected with the coronavirus variant detected in Britain after identifying the first case of the strain last week.

    While Japan had been slowly opening up to international travel as it seeks to repair its battered economy and prepare for the rescheduled Olympics next summer, it shifted back toward tightening its borders as the medical system has been significantly strained by a spike in the number of coronavirus cases.

    Japan confirmed a record 3,881 coronavirus cases on Saturday. The country logged about 2,400 new cases on Monday and reported over 50 deaths.

    In an effort to prevent the pandemic from further straining hospitals' ability to treat COVID-19 patients during the New Year holidays, when there are usually fewer medical personnel on duty, the government also expanded Monday its suspension of its "Go To Travel" tourism promotion campaign across the country through Jan. 11.

    The scheme, subsidizing up to half of people's travel expenses, had already been halted for trips to Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, Hiroshima and Sapporo, which have seen a notable increase in infections. It was originally launched in July to help the country's tourism industry hit hard by the pandemic.

    The nationwide halt of the campaign is estimated to cause a loss of 318.7 billion yen ($3.08 billion) in potential spending through Jan. 3, with the nation observing a 73 percent drop in the number of travelers from last year due to the pandemic, according to JTB Tourism Research and Consulting Co.

    The government will cover 50 percent of the losses sustained by travel agencies and hotel operators.

    Local tourism operators have expressed concern about the double impact of the country's tighter border restrictions and halt of the "Go To Travel" campaign.

    "We can't expect foreign tourists to come, and with the extended suspension of the 'Go To Travel' promotion we can't be sure about how we will be affected," said Shunichi Kobayashi, 73, who runs a ski resort in Sapporo on the northernmost main island of Hokkaido.

    "We aren't sure if there will be as many people as in past peak seasons," he said.

    Japan's ancient capital Kyoto, another popular tourist draw, has also been hit, with Kiyotaka Fujiki, an 82-year-old souvenir shop manager, saying he expects sales during the New Year holiday season to be less than 10 percent of those in normal years.

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