Japan bans foreign visitors to block Omicron variant

Japan will ban foreign visitors following the emergence of the Omicron variant, in one of the strongest responses to the new coronavirus strain from a large country.

Fumio Kishida, Japan’s prime minister, said on Monday that the decision would take effect at midnight on Tuesday, reversing a three-week-old relaxation of rules.

“We’re handling the Omicron variant with a strong sense of crisis,” Kishida told reporters. “It appears to be spreading around the world so we continue to look at further strengthening our border control measures.”

The ban covers foreign students, trainees and workers moving to Japan and business travellers on short trips. Under the previous measures, vaccinated business travellers could visit Japan after undergoing quarantine for as few as three days.

Japanese nationals and foreign residents returning from South Africa, neighbouring countries and other nations with Omicron cases would have to quarantine at government-controlled facilities, Kishida added.

Returning travellers from southern Africa would have to spend 10 days in a government hotel; those from Israel, the UK, Holland and Italy would have to spend six days; and those from Germany, Hong Kong and a number of other countries would have to spend three days in a government facility. In all cases, travellers would then have to quarantine at home to reach a total of two weeks.

The Japanese policy change followed a scramble among countries to contain the spread of the variant, which was first identified in southern Africa. Israel and Morocco have previously announced that they would close their borders to foreign travellers and a number of countries including the US and UK as well as the EU have introduced travel controls and quarantine measures for arrivals.

Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africa’s president, has said the travels bans were “completely unjustified”, adding that there was no scientific rationale for the restrictions. The measures “discriminate”, he added, arguing that the variant should instead highlight that rich countries must improve access to vaccinations in Africa.

The Omicron variant has caused alarm among health experts because of the speed with which it spreads and its genetic profile, which helps the virus evade a body’s immune system.

The World Health Organization has labelled Omicron a “variant of concern” but it also called for a balanced response, urging that countries that report the strain not be penalised.

The discovery of the variant has hit stock markets, with global equities and oil prices falling the most in a year last week.

Japan’s decision to bar foreign arrivals caused stocks to fall in Tokyo, where they had been trading higher on expectations of a gradual return of tourists. The Topix was down 1.8 per cent in afternoon trading, led by sharp falls among transport companies.

“Japan had just started to open up for short-term visitors and this looks like a step back,” said Takeo Kamai, head of execution services at CLSA. “There is a lot of uncertainty and the Tokyo market is always going to trade conservatively at a time like that.”

Shares across Asia-Pacific were down, with Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index down 0.9 per cent, Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 falling 0.5 per cent and South Korea’s Kospi 0.9 per cent lower.

Airlines across the region were hit particularly hard, with Qantas dropping as much as 6.2 per cent, Malaysia’s AirAsia down as much as 6.7 per cent and Cathay Pacific falling almost 5 per cent.

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