TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) – As the coronavirus reappears in Japan, politicians and experts are increasingly divided over the impact a subsidy program encouraging people to travel has on the spread of Covid-19.
The popular “Go To Travel” campaign, which cuts travel to boost regions hardest hit by tourist shortages, is one of the government’s top projects to boost the economy and has been heavily supported by the government. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.
But as the country faces its strongest outbreak of the virus to date, a debate has erupted over whether the program is a main cause of the rise in infections. The risk is that the campaign could do more harm than good in the long run in a country trying to balance growing the economy and controlling the pandemic.
The “Go To Travel” campaign is just one of several grants promoted to jumpstart the economy, with the “Go To Eat” and “Go To Event” programs offering discounts on restaurants and events.
Critical comments and opponents on social media have scoffed at programs like “Go to Hospital” or “Go to Heaven”.
The campaign also appears to be crossing the threads of local governments as they begin to implement new restrictions to stem the growing number of severe Covid-19 cases in Japan.
The governor of Tokyo urges residents to avoid unnecessary exits and the government is raising the specter of another state of emergency.
But national leaders are reluctant to abandon the stimulus that has been hailed for injecting trillions of yen into the economy. There were only 197 infections among the more than 40 million people who participated in the Go To program, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato said Thursday, November 26, and the government has not received any reports. hotel workers or other infected people. by travelers, he said.
“There is no evidence that the travel program is the main cause” of the increase, Mr Suga said in a parliamentary session on Wednesday, telling the Leader of the Opposition: “If you have a better idea, I’m ready to hear it. “
Mr. Suga helped launch the program during the summer wave amid great public concern. In an interview in August, he said one of the reasons for the subsidies was to keep hotels and hostels afloat in order to meet the government’s goal of attracting 60 million foreign tourists by 2030.
The impact of subsidies is significant. Nomura Research Institute economist Takahide Kiuchi said shutting down the program for one year would reduce GDP by 0.39 percentage points by wiping out some 2.17 trillion yen (S $ 27.9 billion) consumer spending.
“Suga is passionate about the program and doesn’t want to cancel it,” Mr. Kiuchi said. “But if the government wants to help the tourism sector, it should give money to people in the sector directly.”
The government has made efforts to change the Go To program amid growing infections. Last weekend Mr Suga ruled out countryside areas where the virus was spreading, but only for inbound travelers.
Discussions are underway to extend Go To until May 2021. About 51% of those polled in an Asahi poll disagreed with such an extension, while 37% approved. The poll, conducted on November 14 and 15, showed support for the program to be highest in Tokyo but lower in areas like Hokkaido.
Mr. Shigeru Omi, head of the expert group advising the government, called for a broader suspension to also exclude people in hot spots from traveling to other parts of Japan.
The campaign also rekindled a familiar whim about the pandemic strategy between the national government and authorities in Tokyo.
“It is evident that positive diagnoses are increasing due to the movement of people,” Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike said earlier this week. Nonetheless, she refrained from calling for Tokyo to be removed from the program, arguing that the national government should make a decision.
Other regional leaders pushed back efforts to curb the campaign.
Mr. Soichiro Takashima, mayor of the southern city of Fukuoka, wrote that he saw no connection. “We cannot see such a correlation in Fukuoka.”
But as the debate continues, Dr Hiroshi Nishiura, a mathematical modeler of infectious diseases at Kyoto University, said a cautionary approach may be appropriate.
“Of course, it would be better to have a decision based on causal reasoning, but it would be too late to show clear evidence that ‘Go To Travel’ caused a significant infection after the fact,” wrote Dr Nishiura. “During a phase of exponential growth, it may be necessary to work on the basis of precautionary principles.”