TOKYO - Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said Friday the government will continue its domestic tourism promotion campaign to underpin the economy, despite requests from doctors and others to suspend the subsidy program amid a resurgence of coronavirus infections in Japan.
The country reported 2,427 new infections, hitting a record high for the third day in a row, according to local authorities. Tokyo logged 522 cases, down from the record 534 marked Thursday, while Osaka Prefecture hit a record 370.
"We are in a situation where maximum caution is required," Suga said in parliament. But he also suggested he has no plans to scrap the Go To Travel campaign, saying, "We have been reviewing the program by listening to the opinions of experts and businesses involved. We will continue to operate it appropriately."
The government's coronavirus task force, however, proposed after its meeting that the central and local governments consider shortening restaurant business hours and also reviewing the Go To Travel campaign over the next three weeks in regions where infections are spreading rapidly.
"We'll take strong steps at this stage to avoid declaring a state of emergency," Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister in charge of the government's coronavirus response, told reporters after receiving the proposal.
A government source said, "We must respect the task force's sense of crisis."
The Go To Travel subsidy program, which effectively covers half of a traveler's expenses, was launched in late July to support the tourism industry after it was severely affected by the pandemic.
So far, some 40 million trips have been covered by the scheme, with 176 users found to have been infected with the virus, according to the government.
Toshio Nakagawa, head of the Japan Medical Association, has said while there was no concrete evidence to indicate the program was responsible for the recent spike in coronavirus cases in the country, "It is no mistake that the scheme acted as a catalyst."
Haruo Ozaki, who heads the Tokyo Medical Association, said at an emergency press conference it is highly possible that the movement of people has been causing the spread of infections. "We would like (the government) to suspend (the program)," he said.
But the travel industry and some local governments have called for the program to continue for the time being to keep the economy afloat.
"While infections are spreading, (the program's) economic effectiveness for the travel industry is huge," the Miyazaki prefectural government told Kyodo News.
Wakayama Prefecture shared a similar view, saying, "We are not in a situation where we need to cut off people from other prefectures all at once."
The nationwide infection tally now stands at around 129,000, including about 700 from the Diamond Princess cruise ship quarantined in Yokohama in February, while nearly 2,000 deaths have been reported.
Meanwhile in Tokyo, coupons under the government's Go To Eat campaign, which promotes dining out and supports the restaurant industry, became available Friday. Most prefectures in the country have already launched such coupons.
The number of new cases in Tokyo surpassed 500 on Thursday for the first time, and the metropolitan government raised its virus alert to the highest of four levels. The level four alert was last in place in the capital on Sept. 10.
Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike has urged people to avoid eating in large groups and to spend less time together. The central government has called for measures such as limiting groups to four or less.