Japan Retracts Flight Bans Because of Omicron After Blowback For Restrictiveness

Japan pulled back a restriction on new bookings on incoming international flights just a day after it went into effect, The Associated Press reported.

The country's transport ministry said Thursday it retracted the ban after extensive criticism from within its borders and other parts of the world. Many decried the initial ban as too strict.

Wednesday, Japan had asked airlines to stop selling new international flight tickets for flights coming into the country.

Japan's Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism made the initial announcement of the new emergency precaution on Wednesday. Tickets for international flights had been suspended until at least the end of December, although tickets purchased ahead of time would not be affected unless there were insufficient passengers.

The country previously banned all foreign visitors in the wake of the Omicron variant. However, the initial flight ban, in particular, sparked backlash from many on social media. According to the Associated Press, Japanese citizens living overseas are wondering whether they will be able to return home to celebrate the holidays with their families. Others compared it to the country's national isolation policy during its feudal era.

The country's decisions came as scientists try to determine the severity of the Omicron variant as conflicting information emerges. The World Health Organization said Monday that the global risk from the strain is "very high," while some doctors are reporting that it produces only mild symptoms. Japan was among many countries that tightened travel measures upon the announcement of the strain.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Tokyo Tower
NHK TV said Wednesday that Japan will suspend new reservations on all incoming flights for a month to guard against new COVID-19 Omicron variant. The country changed course Thursday. Above, a plane flies past the moon rising over Tokyo Tower on November 20, 2021. AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato, File

Transit passengers were unaffected by the new policy.

Japan confirmed a second case of the Omicron variant in a person who arrived from Peru via Doha, one day after it reported its first case in a Namibian diplomat.

The second patient, who was fully vaccinated, tested positive for the coronavirus upon arrival on Sunday and was isolated while genetic sequencing was conducted. He was initially asymptomatic but has since developed a fever and sore throat, officials said.

All the remaining 114 passengers on the flight tested negative and are being monitored by health authorities, most of them at a government-designated facility.

The government is also requiring Japanese citizens arriving in the country to quarantine for up to 14 days.

Japan had been easing social and economic activities after infections rapidly slowed since September.

Meanwhile, Japan on Wednesday started offering coronavirus vaccine booster shots to health care workers amid growing concerns over the new variant.

Japan's initial vaccination drive kicked off in mid-February and some medical workers who received shots more than nine months ago are now eager to get additional protection ahead of a possible new wave of infections.

A group of nurses and doctors received booster shots at the Tokyo Medical Center.

"It's an important first step for our patients and their families to be treated with a sense of safety," said hospital chief Kazuhiro Araki.

Even though the efficacy of vaccines against the new variant is still being examined, booster shots are important, Araki said, because the vaccines remain effective against other strains of the virus, including Delta, which put heavy pressure on Japan's health care systems this summer.

Those who received their second shot eight months ago are eligible for a third shot to prevent breakthrough infections. Eligibility may be shortened to six months if there is a resurgence of infections, officials said.

Japan's vaccination rollout got off to a slow start but surged from late May, and now about 77 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated—a main reason experts cite for Japan's steady slowing of infections since September.

Booster shots for elderly people, who received their initial inoculations starting in April, are expected to begin in January.

Update (12/01, 11:05 PM): This story was updated to reflect Japan's shift in policy.

Japan Airport Quarantine
Quarantine support members walk on an international flight arrival floor at Tokyo's Haneda Airport on December 1, 2021, as Japan suspended all new flight bookings into the country in response to the COVID-19 Omicron variant. Photo by Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP via Getty Images