Analysis: Lack of vaccination passport, tests threaten Japan’s reopening

TOKYO, Oct. 19 (Reuters) – Japan’s lack of a vaccination passport and limited testing capacity threatens ambitions to reopen the economy at a crucial year-end period when restaurants are earning up to half of their annual income and travel agencies are at their peak.

This means that businesses, wary of another pandemic wave during the winter, are not rehiring laid-off staff or ordering more supplies until they know more about what the reopening program will look like and how much. long they can remain open. Local authorities have been largely on their own, creating a patchwork of rules and compliance programs.

The issue is how quickly Japan can recoup some of the $ 44 billion spent by foreign tourists in 2019 and whether the estimated $ 53 billion in pent-up domestic spending can be freed to revive the struggling economy.

If sloppy, the reopening could also prove costly for new Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who faces elections in less than two weeks. His predecessor was ousted after his popularity dropped due to the perception that his government was messing up its response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The end of the year is essential for bars and restaurants in Japan, where companies have big “forget the year” parties and having a meal to end the year with business associates and friends is an important custom.

“I always had a special event at the end of the year, but I’m thinking of canceling because experts say a sixth wave of coronavirus is definitely going to happen,” said Mayumi Saijo, owner of “Beer Bar Bitter” in Tokyo. . trendy district of Kagurazaka.

Saijo says she’s nervous about ordering some $ 4,000 worth of beer from the Czech Republic after pouring kegs due to blockages last year and struggling to sleep before the latest state lifted. ’emergency.

“Anything I prepare for would cost me money,” she said. “I want to avoid the risk at all costs.”

While its place survived previous pandemic restrictions on opening hours, government compensation did not prevent a record 780 bars and restaurants in Japan from going bankrupt during the year through April, and 298 others since then, according to private credit firm Teikoku Databank.

“Until what time will restaurants be allowed to stay open? It all depends on that – hire staff, order supplies,” said Shigenori Ishii, head of the Japan Food Service Association, an industry group of 75,000 members. .


Japan was initially criticized for a slow rollout of vaccination that left it behind most advanced economies and made it vulnerable to a Delta variant outbreak that forced it to host the Tokyo Olympics. without spectators this summer.

Cases have since slowed down and vaccinations have caught up, allowing the government to gradually begin work on a reopening program that would involve the use of vaccination certificates and COVID-19 tests.

The problem with vaccine passports is that, in addition to unresolved confidentiality issues, the vaccines were administered by local authorities or self-defense forces and a unified database does not exist.

“I think we should have prepared a lot, a lot sooner. Maybe a year ago,” says Yusuke Nakamura, geneticist and pioneer in personalized cancer treatment. “There is no standardized mechanism for providing a vaccine passport, so every city makes some sort of passport, but nothing is digitized.”

While the city of Tokyo has made virtually no progress on the project, officials say some municipalities are going it alone.

Ishigaki Island, home to Japan’s southernmost city, has changed a mobile phone app used for vaccine reservations to now serve as a mobile immunization record. Tourists can show their vaccination record to get a discount card in shops and restaurants.

“If we can expand the use to provide peace of mind between traders and buyers, Ishigaki’s economy can recover,” said Teruyuki Tanahara, head of the city of Ishigaki.

The problem with partially basing the reopening on COVID-19 testing is that Japan did not conduct mass testing – it performed 9 times fewer tests per capita than the United States during the pandemic, according to data from Oxford University, and they are not readily available.

The government said it was testing according to World Health Organization recommendations. New Prime Minister Kishida has pledged to increase testing capacity, but similar promises made by his predecessors have failed to bring tangible improvements.

Makoto Shimoaraiso, a cabinet official guiding the pandemic response, told Reuters that the government “is experimenting with what the optimal package would be, for example on the football field or stadium or restaurants or pubs.”

“We will also hear from other stakeholders like private companies and local governments to come up with a specific operational plan and we are trying to accelerate that,” said Shimoaraiso.

Back in Tokyo, Mike Grant, co-owner of the pizza and craft beer restaurant chain DevilCraft with 20 employees, said any program should be accompanied by clear rules of application.

“We don’t mind turning people down if we were allowed to do so… and if the government backed us up and said ‘that’s what the science says’.”

“I think we would be asked if we were ahead of adopting a program like this. So that would definitely be positive.”

Reporting by Elaine Lies and Rocky Swift; Editing by Antoni Slodkowski and Lincoln Feast.

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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