Photo/Illutration Shigeru Omi, chairman of the government panel of experts dealing with the pandemic, holds a news conference on Nov. 20 to explain the body's recommendations. (Naoyuki Himeno)

Fears that Japan is in the grip of a "third wave" of the COVID-19 pandemic forced the government's panel of experts dealing with the health crisis to shift gear and recommend a full-scale review of the Go To Travel tourism promotion campaign intended to spur economic activity.

Panel members expressed alarm at a sharp spike in cases around the nation in recent days during a Nov. 20 meeting in Tokyo.

They urged the government to take urgent steps to prevent a further spread of infections, especially to and from areas where new cases are spiraling out of control.

On Nov. 20, authorities nationwide confirmed a record 2,426 new cases.

Records were broken in Hokkaido, the northernmost main island, with 304 new cases and bustling Osaka Prefecture with 370 cases. Tokyo also reported 522 cases, the second straight day the figure exceeded 500.

Until now, the experts’ panel had remained cautious about implementing measures that might lead to a slowdown in economic activity.

But it is now unable to ignore the recent sharp upswing. Members noted during the Nov. 20 meeting that some areas were approaching the second highest stage 3 in terms of various benchmarks related to the new coronavirus.

Yasutoshi Nishimura, the state minister in charge of economic revitalization who is in charge of dealing with the health scare, said at a news conference following the panel meeting that government officials dealing with the pandemic would meet again on Nov. 21 to discuss further measures.

The panel’s recommendations include having prefectures where large numbers of new infections have occurred to implement a range of measures over a three-week period to bring the situation under control. Those steps include asking restaurants that serve alcohol to shorten their business hours or temporarily close their doors.

The panel also called on the central government to provide fiscal support to help businesses that cooperate with the requests from prefectural governments.

Under the panel’s four stage classification, prefectures in stage 3 have a sharp increase in new infections and prefectural authorities in those jurisdictions are called on to ask local restaurants and bars to shorten business hours.

A stage 4 area means that central and prefectural governments should consider stronger steps, such as declaring a state of emergency and ordering residents to remain at home.

In September, the experts’ panel said the Go To Travel and Go To Eat consumption promotion campaigns could be implemented in prefectures that were at stage 2 or under.

While all prefectures had been considered at stage 2 or under, some areas, such as Hokkaido and Tokyo, experienced sharp increases in November and some of the six benchmarks used by the panel to help determine what stage an area is in had exceeded levels for stage 3.

As it is up to each prefectural governor to determine the stage his or her jurisdiction is in, deeper discussions on measures to take never materialized.

The panel’s recommendation did not specify which prefectures were considered at the equivalent of stage 3, but during a subsequent news conference, Shigeru Omi, the panel chair, indicated that the areas of concern to the panel were Tokyo, Osaka, Aichi and Hokkaido.