Japan will extend the current strict border control measures "for the time being" past early January as the nation remains vigilant amid uncertainty over the Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Tuesday.
Even with the number of daily confirmed coronavirus cases staying at low levels and a community spread of Omicron not unfolding, Kishida said Japan needs to strengthen its preparedness by accelerating booster shot rollouts and promoting orally administered COVID-19 drugs.
The government launched the current border control measures in late November for about a month, barring new entries by foreigners from abroad and requiring returning Japanese nationals and foreign residents to quarantine in government-designated facilities. Kishida said recently that the measures would be extended until early January.
As part of ramped-up anti-virus steps, all people found to be infected with COVID-19 will be tested for Omicron in Japan. Those who have had close contact with people infected with the new variant will be asked to stay at designated facilities for two weeks, rather than at home.
"Scientific evaluations have yet to be established regarding how transmissible Omicron is and how serious (the disease caused by it) will get," Kishida told a press conference held after a 16-day extraordinary Diet session ended on the day.
"We have decided to extend the current border control measures for the time being," Kishida said.
Following the lifting of a protracted COVID-19 state of emergency in October, Japan has not seen a surge in coronavirus cases and over 77 percent of the population has been vaccinated twice against the novel coronavirus.
The government is now seeking to accelerate the rollout of third shots of COVID-19 vaccines, with health care workers and senior citizens receiving priority. U.S. vaccine suppliers Pfizer Inc. and Moderna Inc. have said third shots will boost antibodies and offer protection against Omicron. The health minister approved the two companies' vaccines to be used for a booster shot.
In the meantime, the government aims to make U.S. pharmaceutical firm Merck & Co.'s orally administered COVID-19 treatment drug available in Japan before the year-end and its competitor Pfizer's in early 2022.
Kishida, who became prime minister in October, has focused on antivirus measures after his predecessor Yoshihide Suga saw public support dwindle over his government's response to the pandemic.
During the extraordinary Diet session, parliament passed a record 36.0 trillion yen ($316 billion) supplementary budget for fiscal 2021 to support the pandemic-hit economy. The prime minister faced criticism for his flip-flop over a cash handout program as the government decided to allow 100,000 yen to be distributed entirely in cash to child-rearing households, rather than its earlier plan for half of the amount in vouchers.
"I accept various criticisms that our change to the original policy has caused confusion," the premier said.
On wage growth, a requisite for his push for wealth redistribution, Kishida said "all possible tools" should be used to realize pay hikes, adding that he will make sure small and midsize companies can raise wages.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic has made in-person meetings with global leaders difficult, Kishida told the press conference he wants to step up diplomacy next year.
"I'd like to hold talks with U.S. President (Joe) Biden at an early date," he said, adding that arrangements are still being made for him to visit the United States.
"Meeting him in person and sharing views on common challenges and building a personal relationship of trust is extremely important," the premier added.
Asked about the diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, Kishida said he needs more time to weigh various factors before making a decision based on national interests.
The United States, Japan's closest ally, has already announced plans not to send its officials to the games, followed by nations such as Australia and Britain.
At home, Kishida has faced calls within some conservative lawmakers from his ruling Liberal Democratic Party to join the diplomatic boycott.
China is a major trading partner for Japan but its assertive moves in the East China Sea where the Japanese-controlled, Chinese-claimed Senkaku Islands are located, has raised alarms.
"We need to say what should be said to China based on the universal values of freedom, democracy, the rule of law and human rights," Kishida said, adding that no summit talks have been planned with President Xi Jinping.
As a Japanese leader who was elected from Hiroshima, which experienced a U.S. atomic bombing in 1945, Kishida is vocal about the realization of a nuclear-free world.
Japan will do its utmost for the success of a U.N. review conference on the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in January, he said, after the previous meeting in 2015 failed to produce a final document due to disagreements.