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Docs reveal 5 or more virus cases at 8 hotels, inns under Japan's 'Go To Travel' program

This photo taken on Jan. 22, 2021, shows a portion of documents disclosed by the Japan Tourism Agency listing the accumulated total number of coronavirus cases at each hotel and inn that registered with the government's "Go To Travel" tourism subsidy program. (Mainichi/Nobuyuki Shimada)

TOKYO -- At least eight hotels and inns that accommodated people using the Japanese government's "Go To Travel" domestic tourism subsidy program have each found five or more employees and guests infected with the coronavirus, documents disclosed by the Japan Tourism Agency have revealed.

    It is the first time that a detailed breakdown of coronavirus infections among businesses that signed up with the government's campaign aimed at spurring the pandemic-battered tourism industry has come to light.

    When it comes to facilities that have confirmed at least two coronavirus infections among guests and employees, a total of 28 businesses in Tokyo, Okinawa, Osaka and other prefectures reported such cases, according to the documents released to the Mainichi Shimbun through a freedom of information request.

    The tourism agency has outsourced the operation of the Go To Travel campaign to an organization called the "Tourism industry joint proposal body," and the contractor's secretariat manages the execution of the budget for the program. The Mainichi Shimbun filed a freedom of information request with the agency on Oct. 28, 2020 for documents regarding individuals infected with the coronavirus that were reported by the contractor. In response, 59 pages of data were released on Jan. 13, 2021, showing figures ranging from the start of the Go To campaign up to Oct. 28 last year.

    The documents, titled "Reporting forms concerning the novel coronavirus," list individuals diagnosed with COVID-19 who were reported to the secretariat by hotels, inns and other facilities that registered with the Go To campaign. While the names of the facilities are blacked out, the documents contain other details including the number of coronavirus cases at each facility, the details of the infected individuals -- such as whether they are employees or travelers, including those who didn't use the Go To campaign -- and the number of people who have come in close contact with the infected individuals.

    According to the documents, eight lodging facilities in Okinawa, Osaka, Chiba and other prefectures saw at least five coronavirus cases each among their employees and guests.

    A facility in Chiba Prefecture, east of Tokyo, reported that a total of 13 people -- six guests and seven staffers -- contracted the coronavirus in its filings on Aug. 25, 26, 29 and Sept. 8 last year. A facility in the central Japan prefecture of Niigata on the Sea of Japan coast reported infections among seven guests and four employees, while a facility in Osaka Prefecture in western Japan confirmed that five workers had tested positive for the virus. A facility in the southernmost prefecture of Okinawa reported that 10 employees were infected with the coronavirus.

    It is suspected that inclusion of more recent figures up to Dec. 28 -- when the Go To program was suspended nationwide -- could result in a higher number of suspected group infections at hotels and inns.

    The released documents list a total of 304 people as individuals found to have been infected with the coronavirus at facilities registered with the Go To initiative between Aug. 4 and Oct. 28. Among them, 181 were guests, 121 were workers at such facilities and two cases had yet to be confirmed. Among the infected guests, about 80 people are believed to have used the Go To program. According to the tourism agency, as of Jan. 14 there were 401 staff at lodging facilities and 393 travelers who used the Go To program who were infected with the virus.

    Commenting on the Go To campaign in November last year, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said before the House of Representatives Budget Committee, "There is no evidence that it is the primary cause of the spread of infections." The government has also consistently denied that the Go To program has led to the spread of COVID-19 in Japan.

    With regard to the spate of outbreaks at many hotels and inns, an official at the tourism agency said, "Investigations by public health centers have confirmed no instances of travelers having infected hotel employees directly. It remains unchanged that there is no evidence (that the Go To program is the cause of the spread of infections)."

    However, questions remain as to whether the suspected clusters at hotels and inns that have been reported might serve as evidence that the Go To initiative contributed to the spread of COVID-19 cases. The Mainichi Shimbun further queried the tourism agency based on the disclosed documents.

    According to the agency, the government has heretofore calculated "the number of infected individuals who used the Go To Travel program" by adding up the number of travelers using the program who were listed in the reporting forms for coronavirus cases.

    The agency explains that, in determining whether the Go To campaign is accountable for the spread of coronavirus infections, it has attached weight to two scenarios: travelers infecting employees at hotels and inns, and employees at those facilities infecting travelers. This is because these two scenarios raise the possibility that infections could spread across prefectural borders, in contrast with transmissions among travelers from the same area.

    However, the agency said that public health centers have reported no instances of these two scenarios through their investigations thus far.

    At the same time, an agency representative divulged, "There are cases where public health centers have withheld information on the grounds of an unknown route of infection or protection of private information when inquiries were made by the secretariat (of the Go To program)."

    When the Mainichi Shimbun asked the agency to specify the number and ratio of such cases, it refused to respond, saying, "We have not taken statistics." In the documents disclosed to the Mainichi, the column titled "Contact from public health centers and the content of their instructions" is entirely blacked out, leaving the true picture of the entirety of cases cloaked in darkness.

    (Japanese original by Nobuyuki Shimada, City News Department)

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