Japan bans access for foreign visitors as omicron spreads

TOKYO (AP) – Japan announced on Monday that it will suspend access for all foreign visitors from around the world as a …

TOKYO (AP) – Japan announced on Monday that it will suspend access for all foreign visitors from around the world as a new coronavirus variant spreads, causing an increasing number of countries to tighten their borders.

“We are taking the step as an emergency to prevent a worst case scenario in Japan,” said Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. He said the measure will take effect Tuesday.

The decision means Japan will restore border controls, as it eased earlier this month for short-term business travelers, foreign students and workers.

Kishida urged people to continue wearing masks and other basic antivirus measures until further details about the new omicron variant are known.

Many countries have moved to tighten their borders, although scientists warn that it is not clear whether the new variant is more alarming than other versions of the virus.

The variant was identified days ago by researchers in South Africa, and much is still not known about it, including whether it is more contagious, more likely to cause serious illness or more able to evade the protection of vaccines. But many countries rushed to action, reflecting fears of anything that could prolong the pandemic that has killed more than 5 million people.

Israel decided to exclude access for foreigners, and Morocco said it would suspend all incoming flights for two weeks from Monday – among the most drastic of a growing series of travel restrictions imposed by nations around the world as they struggled to slow down the spread of the variant. Researchers in several places – from Hong Kong to Europe to North America – have confirmed its presence. The Netherlands reported 13 omicron cases on Sunday, and both Canada and Australia each found two.

The World Health Organization noted that the variant has already been discovered in many countries and that border closures often have a limited effect, calling for the borders to remain open.

Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health in the United States, meanwhile, stressed that there are no data yet to suggest that the new variant causes more serious disease than previous COVID-19 variants.

“I think it’s more contagious when you look at how fast it’s spreading through several districts in South Africa. It’s therefore earmarked that it’s particularly prone to spreading from one person to another … “What we do not know is whether it can compete with the delta,” Collins said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Collins reiterated several experts in saying the news should make everyone double their efforts to use the tools the world already has, including vaccinations, booster shots and measures such as mask wearing.

“I know, America, you’re really tired of hearing those things, but the virus is not tired of us,” Collins said.

The Dutch public health authority confirmed that 13 people who arrived from South Africa on Friday have so far tested positive for omicron. They were among 61 people tested positive for the virus after arriving on the last two flights to Amsterdam Schiphol Airport before a flight ban was implemented. They were immediately put in solitary confinement, most at a nearby hotel.

Canada’s health minister says the country’s first two cases of omicron were found in Ontario after two people who had recently traveled from Nigeria tested positive.

Authorities in Australia said two travelers arriving in Sydney from Africa were the first in the country to test positive for the new variant. Arrivals from nine African countries are now required to quarantine a hotel on arrival. Two German states reported a total of three cases of returning travelers over the weekend.

Israel moved to ban the entry of foreigners and quarantine all Israelis arriving from abroad.

And Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Monday that Japan is considering stepping up border controls. Kishida told reporters that he planned to announce new measures in addition to the current 10-day quarantine requirement for travelers from South Africa and eight other neighboring countries. Japan still has its border closed to foreign tourists from any country.

Morocco’s foreign minister tweeted on Sunday that all incoming flights to the North African country would be suspended to “preserve the results Morocco has achieved in the fight against the pandemic and to protect the health of its citizens.” Morocco has spearheaded vaccinations in Africa and kept its borders closed for several months in 2020 due to the pandemic.

The United States plans to ban travel from South Africa and seven other South African countries from Monday. “It will give us a period to improve our preparedness,” said the United States’ best expert in infectious diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci, on the ban on ABC’s “This Week”.

Many countries impose such bans, even though they go against advice from the WHO, which has warned of any overreaction before the variant has been thoroughly studied.

Fauci says it will take about two weeks more to have more definitive information about the portability, severity and other characteristics of omicron, according to a White House statement.

The South African government reacted angrily to the travel bans, which it said are “akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new varieties more quickly.”

The WHO issued a statement saying it “stands with African nations” and noted that travel restrictions could play “a role in reducing the spread of COVID-19 slightly, but placing a heavy burden on life and livelihoods.” It said that if restrictions were introduced, they should be scientifically based and not intrusive.

In Europe, many of which have already struggled recently with a sharp rise in cases, officials were on guard.

The United Kingdom on Saturday tightened the rules on wearing masks and on testing international arrivals after finding two omicron cases, but British Health Minister Sajid Javid said the government was nowhere near reintroducing work from home or more serious social measures distancing.

“We now know that these types of measures have a very high cost, both economically and socially, in terms of non-COVID health outcomes, such as the impact on mental health,” he told Sky News.

Spain announced that it will not admit unvaccinated British visitors from 1 December. Italy reviewed lists of air passengers who arrived within the last two weeks. France continues to push vaccinations and booster shots.

David Hui, a respiratory medicine expert and government adviser on the Hong Kong pandemic, agreed with this strategy.

He said the two people who tested positive for the omicron variant had received the Pfizer vaccine and showed very mild symptoms, such as a sore throat.

“Vaccines should work, but there would be some reduction in effectiveness,” he said.

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Moulson reported from Berlin, Collins from Columbia, South Carolina. Zen Soo in Hong Kong, Adam Schreck in Bangkok and Associated Press writers around the world contributed to this report.

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Follow the AP’s coverage of the coronavirus pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic

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