Japan halts foreign arrivals over UK COVID-19 variant

TOKYO (AP) – Japan is barring entry of all non-resident foreign nationals as a precaution against a new and potentially more contagious coronavirus variant that has spread across Britain.

The Foreign Ministry said the entry ban will start today and last through January 31.

Last week, Japan banned non-resident foreigners coming from Britain and South Africa after confirming the new variant in seven people over the last two days — five from Britain who tested positive at airports and two others in Tokyo.

Japan is also suspending the exemption of a 14-day quarantine for Japanese nationals and resident foreigners in a short-track programme that began in November. The entrants now must carry proof of a negative test 72 hours prior to departure for Japan and self-isolate for two weeks after arrival.

Japan is struggling with surging cases since November. It has confirmed a total of 217,312 cases including 3,213 deaths, up 3,700 from the previous 24-hour period. Tokyo alone reported 949 cases, setting a new record, despite calls by experts and government officials for people to spend a “quiet” holiday season.

People wearing face masks to help curb the spread of the coronavirus walk around the scrambled intersection at the Shibuya shopping district in Tokyo. PHOTO: AP

Elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific region, South Korea has decided not to immediately enforce its toughest distancing rules in the greater Seoul area despite a surge in coronavirus cases there. The area is currently under the second-highest distancing rules. There have been calls for raising the restrictions to the highest level, but the government is reluctant to do so because of worries about the economy.

Health Minister Kwon Deok-cheol said yesterday the government will maintain the current restrictions in the Seoul area until January 3. He said the third-highest level of distancing rules imposed in other regions will also remain in place until January 3. Kwon said South Korea logged an average of 999 new cases per day last week, with 690 of them in the Seoul area. Under the current rules karaoke rooms, fitness centres, gyms and cram schools in the Seoul area have suspended operations. As additional steps, authorities last week banned social gatherings of more than five people and ordered the shutdowns of ski resorts and other tourists spots.

The toughest restrictions would shut down hundreds of thousands of more businesses and order companies to have all non-essential employees work from home. South Korea has reported 56,872 cases overall, including 808 deaths.

Meanwhile, Beijing officials reported five new locally transmitted coronavirus cases as authorities rushed to mass-test residents. The five cases, linked to earlier infections, lived in the city’s Shunyi district, which has since activated an emergency response plan including mass testing, source tracing and disinfection. As of Saturday noon, over 120,000 had been tested for the coronavirus.

Authorities plan to test 800,000 people in the district. Separately, officials reported four locally transmitted cases in the northeastern port city of Dalia, where over 4.75 million people were tested following more than 20 confirmed cases this month. China reported 22 new cases in the last 24 hours, including 10 imported and 12 domestic. China has so far reported a total of 86,955 cases, with 4,634 deaths.