Japan‘s lack of a vaccination passport and limited testing capacity is threatening ambitions to reopen the economy at a crucial year-end period when restaurants earn up to a half of their annual revenue and travel agencies are at their busiest.
This means businesses, wary of another pandemic wave through winter, are not rehiring laid-off staff or ordering more supplies until they know more about what the reopening scheme will look like and how long they can stay open. Local authorities have been largely left to fend for themselves, creating a patchwork of rules and compliance schemes.
At stake is how quickly Japan can recapture some of the $44 billion spent by foreign tourists in 2019 and whether the estimated $53 billion in pent-up domestic spending can be unleashed to jump-start the battered economy.
If botched, the reopening could also prove costly for new Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who faces an election in under two weeks. His predecessor was ousted after his popularity ratings tanked due to perceptions his government bungled its COVID-19 pandemic response.
Year-end is critical for bars and restaurants in Japan, where companies organise large “forget-the-year” parties and having a meal to round off the year with business associates and friends is an important custom.
“I’ve always had a special event at the year-end, but I’m thinking of cancelling, because experts say a sixth wave of the coronavirus will definitely come,” says Mayumi Saijo, who owns “Beer Bar Bitter” in Tokyo’s trendy Kagurazaka district.
Saijo says she is nervous about ordering some $4,000 in beer from the Czech Republic after pouring out kegs due to lockdowns last year and having trouble sleeping before the latest state of emergency was lifted.
“Whatever I prepared for would cost me money,” she said. “I want to avoid risk at all costs.”
While her place survived earlier pandemic restrictions on opening hours, government compensation did not prevent a record 780 bars and restaurants in Japan from going bankrupt in the year through April, and another 298 since then, according to private credit firm Teikoku Databank.
“How late will restaurants be allowed to stay open? Everything depends on that – hiring people, ordering supplies,” said Shigenori Ishii, an official at the Japan Food Service Association, a 75,000-member strong industry group.
PASSPORTS AND TESTS
Japan was initially criticised for a sluggish vaccination rollout that left it behind most advanced economies and made it vulnerable to a Delta variant outbreak that forced it to hold the Tokyo Olympics without spectators this summer.
Cases have since slowed to a trickle and vaccinations have caught up, enabling the government to gradually begin work on a scheme to reopen that would entail the use of vaccination certificates and COVID-19 tests.
The issue with vaccine passports is that, on top of unresolved privacy concerns, inoculations have been given by local authorities or self defence forces and a unified database does not exist.
“I think we should’ve prepared much, much earlier. Maybe a year ago,” says Yusuke Nakamura, a geneticist and pioneer in personalised cancer treatment. “There’s no standardised mechanism to provide a vaccine passport so each city is making some kind of passport, but nothing is digitised.”
While the city of Tokyo has made almost no progress on the scheme, according to officials, some municipalities are going it alone.
Ishigaki Island, home to Japan’s southernmost city, modified a cell phone application used for vaccine reservations to now serve as a mobile inoculation record. Tourists can show their vaccine record to get a discount card at shops and restaurants.
“If we can expand the usage to ensure peace of mind between both the shopkeepers and shoppers then Ishigaki’s economy can recover,” said Ishigaki City official Teruyuki Tanahara.
The problem with partially basing the reopening on COVID-19 tests is that Japan has not done mass testing – it carried out 9 times fewer tests per capita than the United States during the pandemic, Oxford University data show, and they are not readily available.
The government has said it tests in line with World Health Organization recommendations. New PM Kishida has pledged to increase testing capacity, but similar promises made by his predecessors did not bring tangible improvements.
Makoto Shimoaraiso, a cabinet official guiding the pandemic response, told Reuters the government was “experimenting what would the optimal package for instance at the soccer field or the stadium or restaurants or pubs be.”
“We’re going to hear from other stakeholders like private businesses and local governments as well to come up with a specific operational plan and we are trying to expedite that,” said Shimoaraiso.
Back in Tokyo, Mike Grant, a co-owner of the DevilCraft chain of pizza and craft beer restaurants with 20 staff, says any scheme should be accompanied by clear enforcement rules.
“We don’t mind turning people away if we were allowed to do so…and if the government would have our backs and say ‘this is what science says.'”
“I think we would be sought out, if we were early to adopt a programme like that. So definitely that would be positive.”
(Reporting by Elaine Lies and Rocky Swift; Editing by Antoni Slodkowski and Lincoln Feast.)
Courts block two Biden administration COVID vaccine mandates
The Biden administration was blocked on Tuesday from enforcing two mandates requiring millions of American workers to get vaccinated against COVID-19, a key part of its strategy for controlling the spread of the coronavirus.
U.S. District Judge Terry Doughty in Monroe, Louisiana, temporarily blocked the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) from enforcing its vaccine mandate for healthcare workers until the court can resolve legal challenges.
Doughty’s ruling applied nationwide, except in 10 states where the CMS was already prevented from enforcing the rule due to a prior order from a federal judge in St. Louis.
Doughty said the CMS lacked the authority to issue a vaccine mandate that would require more than 2 million unvaccinated healthcare workers to get a coronavirus shot.
“There is no question that mandating a vaccine to 10.3 million healthcare workers is something that should be done by Congress, not a government agency,” wrote Doughty.
Separately, U.S. District Judge Gregory Van Tatenhove in Frankfort, Kentucky, blocked the administration from enforcing a regulation that new government contracts must include clauses requiring that contractors’ employees get vaccinated.
The contractor ruling applied in the three states that had filed the lawsuit, Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee, one of at least 13 legal challenges nationwide against the regulation. It appears to be the first ruling against the contractor vaccine mandate.
The White House declined to comment.
The legal setbacks for President Joe Biden’s vaccine policy come as concerns that the Omicron coronavirus variant could trigger a new wave of infections and curtail travel and economic activity across the globe.
Biden unveiled regulations in September to increase the U.S. adult vaccination rate beyond the current 71% as a way of fighting the pandemic, which has killed more than 750,000 Americans and weighed on the economy.
Republican state attorneys general, conservative groups and trade organizations have sued to stop the regulations.
Tuesday’s rulings add to a string of court losses for the Biden administration over its COVID-19 policies.
The most sweeping regulation, a workplace vaccine-or-testing mandate for businesses with at least 100 employees, was temporarily blocked by a federal appeals court in early November.
In August, the U.S. Supreme Court ended the administration’s pandemic-related federal moratorium on residential evictions.
(Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware; Additional reporting by Nandita Bose in Washington; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Peter Cooney)
Putin hits back as NATO warns Moscow against attacking Ukraine
Russia would pay a high price for any new military aggression against Ukraine, NATO and the United States warned on Tuesday as the Western military alliance met to discuss Moscow’s possible motives for massing troops near the Ukrainian border.
President Vladimir Putin countered that Russia would be forced to act if U.S.-led NATO placed missiles in Ukraine that could strike Moscow within minutes.
Ukraine, a former Soviet republic that now aspires to join the European Union and NATO, has become the main flashpoint between Russia and the West as relations have soured to their worst level in the three decades since the Cold War ended.
“There will be a high price to pay for Russia if they once again use force against the independence of the nation Ukraine,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken echoed Stoltenberg, saying: “Any escalatory actions by Russia would be a great concern to the United States…, and any renewed aggression would trigger serious consequences.”
Tensions have been rising for weeks, with Russia, Ukraine and NATO all staging military exercises amid mutual recriminations over which side is the aggressor.
Putin went further than previously in spelling out Russia’s “red lines” on Ukraine, saying it would have to respond if NATO deployed advanced missile systems on its neighbour’s soil.
“If some kind of strike systems appear on the territory of Ukraine, the flight time to Moscow will be 7-10 minutes, and five minutes in the case of a hypersonic weapon being deployed. Just imagine,” the Kremlin leader said.
“What are we to do in such a scenario? We will have to then create something similar in relation to those who threaten us in that way. And we can do that now,” he said, pointing to Russia’s recent testing of a hypersonic weapon he said could fly at nine times the speed of sound.
EU and other Western leaders are involved in a geopolitical tug-of-war with Russia for influence in Ukraine and two other ex-Soviet republics, Moldova and Georgia, through trade, cooperation and protection arrangements.
NATO foreign ministers began two days of talks in the Latvian capital Riga to debate what they say is the growing Russian threat, with Blinken due to brief his 29 alliance counterparts on Washington’s intelligence assessment.
Blinken, speaking at a news conference with his Latvian counterpart, said he will have more to say on Wednesday on how to respond to Russia after holding talks with NATO allies.
“We will be consulting closely with…allies and partners in the days ahead…about whether there are other steps that we should take as an alliance to strengthen our defences, strengthen our resilience, strengthen our capacity,” he said.
Ukraine Prime Minister Denys Shmygal accused Russia https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/exclusive-ukraine-pm-says-russia-absolutely-behind-coup-attempt-2021-11-30 of trying to topple the elected government in Kyiv, which the Kremlin denies, after Ukraine’s president last week unveiled what he said was a coup attempt.
Shmygal also said Ukraine would seek more weapons from the United States – precisely the course of action that Putin has warned against.
The Kremlin annexed the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and then backed rebels fighting government troops in the east of the country. That conflict has killed 14,000 people, according to Kyiv, and is still simmering.
In May, Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders numbered 100,000, the most since its Crimea takeover, Western officials say. Ukraine says there are more than 90,000 there now.
Moscow has dismissed as inflammatory Ukrainian suggestions that it is preparing for an attack, said it does not threaten anyone and defended its right to deploy troops on its own territory as it wishes.
Britain and Germany echoed the NATO warnings.
“We will stand with our fellow democracies against Russia’s malign activity,” said British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said: “NATO’s support for Ukraine is unbroken…Russia would have to pay a high price for any sort of aggression.”
(Additional reporting by John Chalmers in Brussels; writing by Gabriela Baczynska, Robin Emmott and Mark Trevelyan; editing by Mark Heinrich)
Jazz singer Josephine Baker first Black woman honoured at France’s Pantheon
Josephine Baker, the famed French American singer and dancer, was inducted on Tuesday into the Pantheon mausoleum in Paris – one of France’s highest honours – at a ceremony attended by French President Emmanuel Macron.
Baker, who also served in the French Resistance during World War Two and was a prominent civic rights activist after the war, is the first Black woman and sixth woman to enter the Pantheon, a Paris landmark dominating the city’s Latin Quarter.
She was “a Black person who stood up for Black people, but foremost, she was a woman who defended humankind,” Macron said during a speech.
He spoke shortly after Baker’s most famous song, “J’ai deux amours, mon pays et Paris” (“I have two loves, my country and Paris”), was played at the ceremony.
Baker was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1906 but went on to find much of her fame after arriving in Paris in the 1920s, as many Black Americans stayed on in the French capital after World War One and brought over with them American jazz culture.
Baker, who became a French citizen in 1937, died in 1975 and is buried in Monaco.
In accordance with her family’s wishes, Baker’s remains have not been moved to the Pantheon. To represent her presence there, a symbolic coffin was carried into the mausoleum by six pallbearers containing handfuls of earth from four locations: St. Louis, Paris, Monaco and Milandes, in the Dordogne department of France, where Baker owned a castle.
Baker’s empty coffin will lie alongside other French national icons in the mausoleum such as authors Emile Zola and Victor Hugo, the philosopher Voltaire and politician Simone Veil.
(Reporting by Benoit Van Overstraeten; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)
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