TOKYO – Japan on Friday started requiring COVID-19 tests for all passengers arriving from China as an emergency measure against surging infections there as the Asian island country faces its own rising case numbers and record-level deaths.
Japan reported a record 420 new coronavirus deaths on Thursday, one day after reaching an earlier single-day record of 415 deaths, according to the Health Ministry.
The numbers are higher than the daily deaths at the peak of an earlier wave in August, when they exceeded 300. Experts say the reason for the latest increase is unclear but could be linked to worsening chronic illnesses among older patients.
Japan on Friday put into effect tightened border measures it announced earlier in the week: The antigen test that was already conducted on entrants suspected of having COVID-19 is now mandatory for all people arriving from mainland China. Those who test positive will be quarantined for up to seven days at designated facilities and their samples will be used for genome analysis.
The measures began ahead of the New Year's holidays marked by travel and parties. Direct flights between China and Japan will be limited to four major Japanese airports for now, government officials said.
Flights from Hong Kong and Macao will be allowed to land at three other airports — New Chitose Airport in Hokkaido, Naha Airport in Okinawa and Fukuoka Airport — provided there are no passengers who have been to mainland China within seven days prior to the flight.
Hong Kong authorities called the restrictions “unreasonable” and requested Japanese authorities to withdraw them. Prior to adding the three airports for flights from Hong Kong and Macao, authorities said that 60,000 travelers and some 250 flights would be affected between December and January.
Hong Kong tour operators are scrambling to rearrange flights for their customers to minimize losses. Steve Huen Kwok-chuen, executive director of travel agency EGL Tours, said his company was forced to cancel some tours after Japan initially decided to limit flights from Hong Kong to land at just four Japanese airports. After Thursday's policy change, his staffers tried to call the customers who were in the canceled tours back but could not get all of them back.
About 500 customers who had planned a trip to Japan between late December and early January were lost, Huen said.
“After enduring for three years, we thought there would be some silver lining,” he said. “But the restrictions made us suffer some business losses.”
Japan earlier this year stopped requiring COVID-19 tests for entrants who had at least three shots — part of the country’s careful easing of measures after virtually closing its borders to foreign tourists for about two years. This year's holiday season is the first without virus restrictions other than recommendations for mask wearing and testing.
The country is now reporting about 200,000 known daily cases.
At a meeting earlier this week, experts cautioned that the rapid spread of influenza this winter also has the potential to add pressure to medical systems.
China recently reversed its anti-virus controls that kept the country in isolation for nearly three years and announced this week plans to reissue passports and visas for overseas trips. This could send many Chinese abroad for the Lunar New Year holiday in January, raising concerns about possible virus spread.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin on Friday said China continues to monitor the virus mutations and share information, and stressed the importance of science-based approach.
“We hope Japan can view China’s COVID situation and adjustment to our response policy in a correct and objective manner and take science-based and proportionate measures to ensure normal cross-border exchange between the two peoples,” he said.
World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has said the body needs more information on the severity of the outbreak in China.
“In the absence of comprehensive information from China, it is understandable that countries around the world are acting in ways that they believe may protect their populations,” he said Friday on Twitter. “In order to make a comprehensive risk assessment of the COVID-19 situation on the ground in China, WHO needs more detailed information.”
India, Italy, South Korea and Taiwan have also responded to the Chinese wave of infections by requiring virus tests for visitors from China. The United States said Wednesday it would require testing of all travelers from China beginning Jan. 5.
South Korea on Friday announced that it will also require travelers from China to show negative PCR test results within 48 hours or rapid antigen tests within 24 hours of their departures, beginning Jan. 5.
Effective Monday, all visitors from China will also be required to take PCR tests within a day of arriving in South Korea, said Jee Youngmee, commissioner of the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency. South Korea will also restrict the number of flights from China and restrict short-term visas for Chinese nationals, except for those visiting for diplomatic, essential business or humanitarian reasons, at least until the end of February.
Thailand authorities said they were considering requiring a negative virus test and other restrictions on travelers from China.
China had stopped issuing visas to foreigners and passports to its own people at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020.
Associated Press writers Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, South Korea, and Kanis Leung and Zen Soo in Hong Kong contributed to this report.