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Japan’s prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, has bowed to pressure to suspend a subsidised travel programme that experts believe has helped fuel a recent surge of Covid-19 cases around the country.

Suga, a keen supporter of Go To Travel, said the scheme would be halted from 28 December until 11 January, apparently to discourage people from traveling during the New Year holidays.

The scheme, which covers about half the cost of domestic travel expenses, was introduced in July to support regional economies, hotels and airlines during the pandemic.

But a “third wave” of infections and mounting public opposition has forced the government to pause the programme, despite the damage that could inflict on the tourism industry.

Suga’s about-turn came after daily cases in Japan exceeded 3,000 for the first time on Saturday and health workers warned that hospitals were struggling to cope with new Covid-19 patients.

Nagoya and Tokyo, which have both seen sharp rises in cases, will be excluded from the scheme this week. Two other virus hotspots, Osaka and Sapporo, were removed from the scheme last month.

Suga asked people to reconsider plans to return to their hometowns ahead of the New Year holidays. “The nationwide number of infections continues to be high, and based on a number of indicators we are seeing more regions with infections spreading,” Suga told a meeting of his coronavirus task force. “We have decided to take the strongest steps possible in order to stop the spread of the infections … so that all of you can welcome the New Year in peace and quiet.”

Suga, who became prime minister in September, is already facing criticism over his response to the pandemic. A poll by public broadcaster NHK last weekend found support for his cabinet had dropped to 42%, compared with 56% in November.
Japan has been less hard-hit than many other countries, however, with just over 183,000 cases and 2,662 deaths.