Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida admitted on Thursday that the decision to stop taking reservations for inbound international flights caused public confusion and requested the transport ministry to consider people’s wishes to travel home.
The transport ministry had on Wednesday issued a request to international airlines to stop taking new reservations for flights coming into Japan until the end of December as an emergency precaution to defend against the new omicron variant of the coronavirus.
The ministry said Thursday it has retracted the request after receiving criticisms that the ban was too strict and tantamount to abandoning its own people.
Kishida has been pushing to take precautionary measures quickly, after seeing his predecessor Yoshihide Suga virtually lost leadership after facing public criticisms that his virus measures were too little and slow.
“I have instructed the transport ministry to fully pay attention to the needs of Japanese citizens to return home,” Kishida said.
The request had aimed to reduce Japan’s daily international arrivals to 3,500 from an earlier level of 5,000 to tighten border controls as the new variant spread around the world, officials said.
The transport ministry has retracted the request for a uniformed stoppage on new bookings.
But there is still a limit because the daily 3,500 cap will be maintained and new bookings can be taken as long as there is room, said a transport ministry official Hitoshi Inoue.
Japan has already banned entry of foreign nationals from around the world, except for spouses of Japanese nationals, those with permanent residency permits and others subject to special considerations.
Japan has reported two cases of the omicron variant, which was first reported in South Africa last week.
Japan had been easing social and economic activities after infections rapidly slowed since September.
The booking ban request was a disappointment for people who were planning trips during the holiday season, including Japanese citizens living overseas hoping to return home for the New Year period.
Much remains unknown about the new variant, including whether it is more contagious, as some health authorities suspect, whether it makes people more seriously ill, and whether it can thwart the vaccine.