Asia Today: Japan halts all foreign arrivals over UK variant

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People wearing face masks walk near a screen displaying precautions against the coronavirus in Seoul, South Korea, Sunday, Dec. 27, 2020. A banner reads: "People who do not wear masks in public will face a 100,000 won (US$90) fine." (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

TOKYO – Japan is barring entry of all nonresident foreign nationals as a precaution against a new and potentially more contagious coronavirus variant that has spread across Britain.

The Foreign Ministry says the entry ban will start Monday and last through Jan. 31.

Last week, Japan banned nonresident foreigners coming from Britain and South Africa after confirming the new variant in seven people over the last two days — five from Britain who tested positive at airports and two others in Tokyo.

Japan is also suspending the exemption of a 14-day quarantine for Japanese nationals and resident foreigners in a short-track program that began in November. The entrants now must carry proof of a negative test 72 hours prior to departure for Japan and self-isolate for two weeks after arrival.

U.S. military personnel stationed in Japan – who under the Status of Forces Agreement are exempt from Japanese passport control and visa requirements — would be permitted to enter the country for duty or other reasons, although they would have to follow quarantine rules.

Japan, which has been struggling with surging cases since November, has confirmed a total of 217,312 cases, including 3,213 deaths.

Elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific region:

— South Korea has decided not to immediately enforce its toughest distancing rules in the greater Seoul area despite a surge in coronavirus cases there. The area is currently under the second-highest distancing rules. There have been calls for raising the restrictions to the highest level, but the government is reluctant to do so because of worries about the economy. Health Minister Kwon Deok-cheol said Sunday the government will maintain the current restrictions in the Seoul area until Jan. 3. He said the third-highest level of distancing rules imposed in other regions will also remain in place until Jan 3. Kwon said South Korea logged an average of 999 new cases per day last week, with 690 of them in the Seoul area. Under the current rules, nightclubs, karaoke rooms, fitness centers, gyms and cram schools in the Seoul area have suspended operations. As additional steps, authorities last week banned social gatherings of more than five people and ordered the shutdowns of ski resorts and other tourists spots. The toughest restrictions would shut down hundreds of thousands of more businesses and order companies to have all nonessential employees work from home. South Korea has reported 56,872 cases overall, including 808 deaths.