Japan retracts Omicron travel ban after criticism

Measure condemned from inside and outside the country for being too strict

A traveller looks at a flight information board at Haneda International Airport in Tokyo. Japan's Transport Ministry had issued a request to international airlines to stop taking new reservations for flights into the country. AFP
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Japan says it has retracted a ban on new bookings on incoming international flights to defend against Omicron, the new variant of the coronavirus, only a day after the policy was announced.

The Transport Ministry on Wednesday issued a request to international airlines to stop taking new reservations for flights coming into Japan until the end of December as an emergency precaution to defend against the Omicron variant.

The ministry said on Thursday it had retracted the request after receiving heavy criticism from inside and outside the country that the ban was too strict.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said the quick reversal of the policy took into consideration the travelling needs of Japanese citizens.

He has been pushing to impose strong precautionary measures after his predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, stepped down amid public criticism of his handling of the pandemic.

“I have instructed the Transport Ministry to fully pay attention to the needs of Japanese citizens to return home,” Mr Kishida said.

The ban aimed to reduce the number of daily international arrivals to Japan from 5,000 to 3,500 as the Omicron variant spread around the world, officials said.

“The request, issued as an emergency precaution, triggered confusion,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said on Thursday.

But a limit on international arrivals remains in place, with the daily cap set at 3,500.

New bookings can be made as long as new arrivals do not exceed this number, Transport Ministry official Hitoshi Inoue said.

Japan has already barred entry to foreign citizens, except spouses of Japanese, those with permanent residency permits and others subject to special considerations.

Japan has reported two cases of the Omicron variant, which was first reported in South Africa last week.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has retracted a ban on new bookings on incoming international flights. AP

The country had been easing social and economic restrictions after the infection rate started to drop in September.

The booking ban request disappointed many people who planned trips to the country over the festive season, including Japanese citizens living overseas.

Many social media users said the measure was too strict and at least one compared it to Japan’s feudal-era national isolation policy.

Much remains unknown about the Omicron variant, including whether it is more contagious than previous strains, whether it causes more severe illness and whether it can evade existing vaccines.

Updated: December 02, 2021, 5:58 AM