Plummeting public support and warnings from experts about a coronavirus resurgence forced Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to temporarily suspend the government's much-touted domestic tourism subsidy program over the New Year holidays.
The government has long maintained that the "Go To Travel" campaign, which effectively covers up to 50 percent of domestic travel expenses, is not to blame for the recent spike in infections and had sought to keep the campaign running while partially suspending it in areas worst hit by the virus.
But Suga abruptly changed tack on Saturday when the number of newly reported daily nationwide infections surpassed 3,000 and he saw the latest media polls showing his approval rating dropping below 50 percent, according to sources knowledgeable about the matter.
A Kyodo News poll earlier this month showed a 12.7 percentage point drop in Cabinet approval rate to 50.3 percent. A total of 48.1 percent of respondents said the travel promotion campaign should be halted across the country, and only 11.6 percent found the government's handling of the campaign appropriate.
"It really dealt a heavy blow" to Suga, who has to maintain high levels of public support until he calls a general election before the House of Representatives' term expires next October, said a government source.
Backing his boss, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato has repeatedly denied the causal link between the travel subsidy campaign and the spread of the virus.
"An expert panel has said there is no evidence that the campaign is a major cause" of the spread, Kato said, although some medical experts have contradicted this position.
Suga had been seeking to only temporarily exclude trips to Tokyo and Nagoya from the campaign, pointing out that people's livelihoods depend on a functioning economy and that if there is a slump, the number of people who commit suicides could increase.
"We are hitting the accelerator while also standing on the brakes, and I know there are many criticisms," Suga said about trying to sustain the economy while containing the spread of the virus.
The prime minister defended the program, saying, "If people's livelihoods are lost, communities themselves will fall apart."
But the campaign has gradually become a source of concern for the public and fanned criticism that Suga is too fixated on the program.
There was no sign of the pandemic abating even during the three weeks since Nov. 25 the government called "crucial" in preventing the spread of the virus to protect the country's pandemic-strained medical system, increasing questions about Suga's judgment.
As the end of the three weeks neared and Japan's failure to contain the virus became more evident, an expert panel to the government on the coronavirus response urged people to spend the year-end and the New Year period "quietly."
The panel has also warned some areas are having difficulties in keeping up regular medical services while fighting the novel coronavirus.
Suga's reversal on the travel campaign was sudden and without prior consultations to members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, ruffling feathers within the party he heads.
Looking ahead, an LDP executive close to Suga said the government will continue to be put to the test by the pandemic.
"It is difficult to achieve a balance between promoting economic activity and fighting the pandemic," the executive said of Suga's task, requesting anonymity. "A tough road awaits him."