TOKYO: Japan will reinstate tough border measures, barring all new foreign arrivals over the Omicron COVID-19 variant, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced on Monday (Nov 29), just weeks after a softening of strict entry rules.
"We will ban the (new) entry of foreigners from around the world starting from Nov 30," Kishida told reporters, in a decision that reverses a measure to allow some business travellers and students into Japan.
Japanese citizens returning from a number of specified nations can enter but will have to quarantine in designated facilities, the prime minister said.
Japan's borders have been almost entirely shut to new overseas visitors for most of the pandemic, with even foreign residents at one point unable to enter the country.
In early November, the government announced it would finally allow some short-term business travellers, foreign students and other visa holders to enter the country, while continuing to bar tourists.
More countries have imposed travel restrictions to try to seal themselves off as the coronavirus variant spread around the world, with new cases found in the Netherlands, Denmark and Australia.
Tokyo had already announced on Friday it would require travellers permitted to enter Japan from six southern African countries to quarantine in government-designated facilities for 10 days on arrival. The step was expanded to a total of nine countries over the weekend.
That measure now affects travellers coming from South Africa and neighbouring Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique.
Kishida said Monday that further quarantine restrictions would be imposed on arrivals from an additional 14 countries where the variant has been detected, without giving further details.
The prime minister said Japan is "in a stronger position against the Omicron variant than other countries", citing voluntary mask-wearing and self-restraints about risk behaviours.
Japan has recorded just over 18,300 coronavirus deaths during the pandemic, while avoiding tough lockdowns. After a slow start, the country's vaccination programme picked up speed, with 76.5 per cent of the population now fully inoculated.
It has not detected any Omicron cases but the National Institute of Infectious Diseases is analysing a case of a traveller from Namibia who recently tested positive for the coronavirus.
Kishida said he recognised there "might be criticism" that the border tightening was "too cautious when we don't have a full understanding of the situation".
"I take full responsibility for that," he added.
"RACE AGAINST TIME"
Much of the uncertainty surrounds just how infectious Omicron is and how resistant it is to existing vaccines. The World Health Organization (WHO) has said understanding the level of severity of Omicron "will take days to several weeks".
The prestigious Bambino Gesu hospital in Rome on Sunday released the first "image" of the new strain and confirmed there were many more mutations than seen in the Delta variant, though said that does not mean it is more dangerous.
But European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said Sunday governments faced a "race against time" to understand the strain and that vaccine manufacturers needed two to three weeks "to get a full picture of the quality of the mutations".
A long list of countries have already imposed travel restrictions on southern Africa, including key travel hub Qatar, as well as the United States, Britain, Brazil, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the Netherlands.
Israel has announced some of the strictest curbs, closing the borders to all foreigners just four weeks after reopening to tourists following a prolonged closure.
Angola on Sunday became the first southern African country to suspend all flights from its regional neighbours Mozambique, Namibia and South Africa.