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Health ministry errors led to reports of 300 Japan arrivals breaking quarantine rules daily

The central government building housing the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare is seen in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward. (Mainichi/Kimi Takeuchi)

TOKYO -- Reports of "300 people per day" flouting 14-day self-quarantine rules upon arrival to Japan have been found to be largely due to the health ministry's failure to confirm means of communication with the relevant individuals.

    The estimated number of travelers arriving in Japan who were actually breaking pandemic self-isolation rules was significantly lower -- up to 100 people per day -- and the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has said those who were thought to have breached the rules were not at fault in some cases.

    The Japanese government decided to strengthen its virus control measures at the border in March this year, when a state of emergency for Tokyo and the neighboring prefectures of Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama was extended. In the new provisions, all returning citizens and re-entries would be required to install location-tracking software on their smartphones during their self-isolation periods. A system of daily video calls to confirm their health condition and their location would also be arranged.

    As a result, all international arrives to Japan are requested to stay at home or in an accommodation facility for 14 days, and to install location-tracking and video-call apps on their smartphones. After signing a contract with officials, they are then asked to report their whereabouts and condition each day.

    According to the health ministry, the apps used to communicate with arrivals were Skype and WhatsApp. Individuals subject to the measures could choose either, and are asked to cooperate with calls with the ministry's Health Monitoring Center for Overseas Entrants (HCO).

    Currently, 22,000 people a day on average are at some stage of the post arrival quarantine period. In the middle of May, the health ministry announced, "As many as 300 people a day are not cooperating with instructions, such as by not reporting their locations, or leaving their self-isolation area."

    Because disobeying the rules is effectively a breach of contract, the ministry warns it could publish the names of people who don't cooperate. In the case of foreign nationals, the ministry said measures such as revoking their residence status or deportation could be deployed.

    But there have been multiple confirmed cases of HCO trying to call people in quarantine with an app other than the one specified, and not being able to get in contact. This has resulted in the center mistakenly issuing warnings that their names would be released as "non-compliers."

    To respond to new variants of the coronavirus now spreading, the government has from May 10 further strengthened its border measures by contracting a security firm to send its staff to visit the self-isolation locations of people arriving from three countries -- including India -- with serious outbreaks. But there have been cases where the security staff checked the self-isolation locations after the authorities could not get in touch with returnees, only to find them at their home as requested. Also, the health ministry was unaware that the video chat apps can log a user out automatically, and this has led to failed contact cases.

    As a result, from mid-May the ministry has shifted the video chat check-ins to a new, unified service: MySOS. Reportedly due to the change plus strengthened measures, the number of people breaking the rules has fallen to a high of 100 people per day. A health ministry official said, "Until now, we've used servers abroad, and we've made changes from the perspective of private data protection."

    It appears that by changing the app used, the ministry has gotten closer to the true number of people breaking self-isolation rules. Issues surrounding the previous quoted figure of 300 rule-breakers a day have even been brought up in the National Diet, and it is possible the health ministry will be asked to officially correct the numbers.

    There have also been claims that some of the health-check messages sent to arrivals by the HCO have not been received, and the ministry is investigating.

    (Japanese original by Hidenori Yazawa, Lifestyle and Medical News Department)

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