Japan to halt ‘vaccine-and-testing package’ as omicron spreads

Japan will halt implementation of its so-called vaccine-and-testing package, a government system combining COVID-19 vaccinations and testing in a bid to restart economic activities in the wake of breakthrough infections, sources have said.

The move comes as the highly contagious omicron variant of the virus continues to spread rapidly in Japan.

Restrictions for outings such as dining were to have been eased under the system that checks whether visitors have been vaccinated twice or have proof of a negative test for the virus. A spectator attendance limit for large-scale events such as concerts was also to be eased under the plan.

The plan was to apply even when areas are placed under full-fledged states of emergency or quasi-emergencies as a way of curbing the spread of the virus and normalizing economic activities.

The government is considering placing Tokyo and 10 prefectures under a COVID quasi-state of emergency, and plans to recommend a halt of the vaccine-and-testing package to a government advisory panel on the virus response as early as Wednesday, according to the sources.

Prefectural governors and health experts have been seeking a review of the policy given the increased number of infections spurred by the omicron variant.

While the government is also considering maintaining the program under certain conditions, potentially for people who have received booster shots, it has decided to halt the program for the time being, the sources added.

If the quasi-emergency steps are declared, Japan would see 14 of its 47 prefectures put under the measure, reinforcing the view that the nation is experiencing what health experts describe as its sixth wave of the pandemic.

The possible declaration will likely be effective for around three weeks from Friday, one of the sources said.

Tokyo and the neighboring prefectures of Chiba, Saitama and Kanagawa jointly asked the central government to put them under a quasi-emergency after their governors held a virtual meeting Monday to discuss the virus situation in the Tokyo metropolitan area.

Gifu and Mie prefectures in central Japan also made a request Monday as they, too, seek to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed by a spike in COVID-19 cases. Neighboring Aichi Prefecture is also expected to follow suit.

The remaining prefectures are Niigata on the Sea of Japan coast and Kumamoto, Miyazaki and Nagasaki in the country’s s southwest, the national and prefectural government sources said.

Under a quasi-emergency, governors can request that dining establishments shorten their business hours and stop serving alcohol. Residents in these areas would also be asked to refrain from traveling across prefectural borders.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government said Monday that the occupancy rate of hospital beds for COVID-19 patients in the capital had surpassed the 20% threshold required to seek quasi-emergency steps.

In the Kansai region, Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura said he plans to consult with the governors of neighboring Kyoto and Hyogo prefectures over whether to ask for quasi-emergency steps.

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