TOKYO (Reuters) – Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga defended on Friday a travel subsidy campaign that some medical groups and experts say has fuelled a third wave of coronavirus cases, and said he would finalise the size of an economic stimulus package next week.
Opinion polls show Suga’s approval ratings have dipped, with many people unhappy with his handling of the pandemic since he became prime minister in September, after his predecessor, Shinzo Abe, stepped down because of ill health.
Giving his first news conference since a surge in coronavirus cases last month, Suga said the “Go To Travel” campaign to revive domestic tourism was designed to help small businesses in the hospitality sector get through tough times.
“The government moved to promote the domestic travel campaign, seeing that they would not be able to continue their businesses as things were,” Suga said.
But he added that the government’s “biggest responsibility is to protect people’s “lives and livelihoods”, which is why the campaign had been halted in two cities, and elderly people had been discouraged from travelling to and from Tokyo, where cases have risen sharply.
Suga said the size of a new stimulus package to restore the economy, maintain employment and sustain business activity would be finalised next week.
He said it would include an “unprecedented” $19 billion fund to promote carbon neutrality in 2050 and set aside $9.6 trillion yen to promote digital transformation.
Suga has set a carbon-free and digitalized society as his top policy goals.
The world’s third-largest economy rebounded in the third quarter from a pandemic-induced slump, thanks to surging consumption and exports, but some analysts worry about slowing growth ahead because of the resurgence in infections.
Suga said the government would shoulder the cost of providing coronavirus vaccines, but did not give a specific timing for when the vaccination programme would begin.
Some doctors have said the government is not doing enough to curb the virus spread, but focusing on promoting economic activities.
Seen as his predecessor Abe’s right-hand man, Suga also faces a political controversy involving Abe.
Tokyo prosecutors are investigating Abe’s aides over allegations of violating a funding law and seeking to question Abe, domestic media reported.
Earlier on Friday, Abe told reporters that he and his office would cooperate with the probe, but declined to comment further because the investigation was under way.
During the news conference, Suga was pressed to answer questions about the scandal surrounding his former boss, but he did not provide his views, and referred to what Abe has said.
Touching on hopes of building a “stronger alliance” with the United States, Suga said he wanted to meet U.S. President-elect Joe Biden as soon as possible.
(Reporting by Ju-min Park, Kiyoshi Takenaka, Tetsushi Kajimoto and Sakura Murakami; additional reporting by Rocky Swift; Editing by Gerry Doyle, Simon Cameron-Moore and Timothy Heritage)