Time and time again, the pandemic has made a mockery of our plans, a fact we should be familiar with by now yet still manage to be taken aback by. Such was the case for me when I was back in the U.K. in late November and early December to see family and friends for the first time in over two years.
Following the emergence of the omicron variant of the coronavirus, Japan moved quickly to reverse recent steps that had been taken to ease border restrictions. Attention has rightly been focused on the barring of new entries and the impact that has had and will have, but quarantine measures have been tightened too, with their own implications — something I know first hand.
Shortened self-isolation is now a thing of the past and more people will need to spend at least some time at a hotel. But more than that, anyone who shares a flight with someone infected with omicron faces strengthened quarantine measures.
It was because of this policy that I became part of a small group of travelers — but one that will surely grow — who must spend the whole two-week self-isolation period at a government-designated facility, or return to one if the case emerged after they had left. In light of the global spread of the variant and the government’s policy on close contacts, those heading to Japan will now surely need to assume they too may find themselves in the same situation, while authorities will need to consider the implications of what that means.
To be clear, in my case a return to a quarantine hotel was a mere inconvenience compared with the disruption faced by people who have yet again had to put their lives on hold after new entries to Japan were suspended. And although not quite on the same level, some travelers caught up in these extended hotel quarantines will now need to spend their Christmas in a tiny room with nothing but a cold bento for company.
Earlier in the year, when it seemed like international travel was inching back toward normality, I visited my local ward office to collect my vaccine passport, believing that this would not only smooth my arrival in the U.K. but also allow me to do a shortened quarantine at home in Tokyo. Such expectations were blown apart when I woke in London on Nov. 29, a week before I was due to return to Japan, to several concerned text messages from friends and family asking me if I could even get back into the country.
I was lucky that I could. My hopes of quarantining solely at home had been dashed, but a six-day stint at a hotel wasn’t the end of the world, and I found the time went quite quickly. Plus, the regimented existence at the hotel — 7 a.m. notifications about PCR testing, regardless of whether you were due to take one, and regular meal times — helped quickly put me back on Japan time.
Upon returning home, I thought that was that and quickly settled back into a lifestyle that has become all too familiar during the pandemic, but which still offered some creature comforts and, crucially, a bit more space. Then came a vague message on the MySOS app — which all arrivals need to install on their smartphone as part of the process of monitoring their health and location throughout quarantine — saying that I may have had a close contact with someone with COVID-19. A subsequent call revealed this was someone on my flight with omicron and that the authorities wanted me to move back to a quarantine hotel.
As with so many aspects of Japan’s coronavirus response, this was optional — it was made abundantly clear to me that I could refuse. Despite several negative PCR tests and a complete lack of symptoms, I nonetheless thought it was best to play along. It would only be for a few days, and armed with the knowledge gained from my first stint, I figured it would be a slightly better experience. I had also had some respite from quarantine at a government-designated facility, and my attitude would have likely been very different if I had got the news about the omicron close contact while still in the first hotel.
So it was that four days after getting home I found myself cast back into a world of cold bento, temperature checkups and small hotel rooms.
A car was sent to pick me up in the evening — I came to refer to it to colleagues as the “omicronmobile” — and given the concerns over the variant, I had half-expected people in full protective gear to be in tow. As it was, it was simply a polite old man behind the wheel, making it much like any Japanese taxi journey. My neighbors could sleep easy.
This time round, I was sent to a hotel in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward overseen by the metropolitan government that is primarily intended for those recovering from COVID-19. As a result, health monitoring has been more extensive, but the experience has largely been the same, although some amenities have been unavailable or only on request, ostensibly due to COVID-19 precautions. The food — supplied by a nearby Irish pub of all places — has in fact been better.
Underlying the similarity is the fact that in both cases, the quarantine site was an Apa hotel — a chain infamous among foreign residents and visitors to Japan as one that distributes books in its rooms espousing revisionist, rightwing history. But while that literature was absent from the hotel in Yokohama used for the airport quarantine, it was proudly on display in Shinjuku. I expect the books have never before had such a captive audience.
One similarity that should have been unremarkable is that neither hotel was far from the airport or my home. Increasingly this is not the case as the government runs out of quarantine space, with some arrivals at Narita Airport in Chiba Prefecture immediately dispatched across the country to as far as Fukuoka so they can observe the proper protocols.
This then raises the question about what the authorities will do as omicron spreads yet further. With pre-departure tests able to be taken up to 72 hours before the flight, there remains plenty of opportunity for passengers to contract the coronavirus prior to boarding, and increasingly that is going to mean the omicron variant. Even allowing for the fact that aircraft are currently far from full, it’s easy to see that the numbers of omicron close contacts could increase rapidly.
What’s more, the emergence of an omicron case in someone quarantining at home as well as a friend that visited them will hardly encourage a shift toward easing current policies.
So will the government be able to secure more quarantine locations, or will it move to further restrict border measures, perhaps by reducing the number of arrivals allowed each day? What has been made abundantly clear, even as my quarantine nears its end, is that this pandemic is far from over.
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