Japan could declare a month-long state of emergency in Tokyo and three surrounding prefectures starting from Saturday, in a bid to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus as a resurgence in cases has taken hold, government sources said Monday.
At a New Year's press conference Monday, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said that declaring a state of emergency over the COVID-19 situation in the greater Tokyo area could indeed be a possibility.
Tokyo accounts for the most COVID-19 infections among all of Japan's 47 prefectures and the greater Tokyo area, including Saitama, Chiba and Kanagawa prefectures, comprise about 50 percent of the around 3,000 new daily cases reported on average of late.
The Japanese leader said at the press conference that the state of emergency should be implemented "in a very limited and focused manner," noting that social restrictions will not be applicable to the entire nation.
A state of emergency was declared in Tokyo and six other prefectures on April 7 last year, which was later expanded to cover the whole country.
As to why it had taken so long for Suga to consider issuing a second state of emergency, despite pressure from local governors and opposition parties who believe the call was made too late, Suga said that footfall in nightlife districts did not drop by much in December, indicating that a period of monitoring had been taking place, but a stronger message needed to be delivered to the public.
"We will consider the issuance of an emergency declaration. It is a fact that the number of people infected with the novel coronavirus has not declined but remained high in Tokyo and the three adjacent prefectures," he said. "Taking this seriously, we thought we need to issue a stronger message."
On Saturday, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, along with her counterparts in Chiba, Kanagawa and Saitama prefectures, urged the central government to issue a second declaration to cover their regions, with their petition coming mere days after the capital city saw daily new infections surge past the 1,300-mark for the first time since the outbreak of the epidemic.
Tokyo's medical system has become increasingly strained as a result of rising infections. Health experts have recently said that the situation is "entering a critical stage," with some warning the medical system in the Japanese capital "may collapse if the situation continues."
Tokyo raised its alert regarding the strain on its medical system for the first time since the outbreak of the coronavirus to the highest on its four-tier scale where it has been kept in place since mid-December last year.
On Monday, Japan reported 3,295 new infections, bringing its nationwide cumulative tally to 248,504 cases, not including those related to a cruise ship quarantined near Tokyo earlier last year, according to official data.
Meanwhile, Tokyo reported 884 new infections, taking its total caseload 63,474. Kanagawa, Saitama and Chiba prefectures recorded 412, 243 and 195 new cases, respectively.
SHORTENING BUSINESS HOURS
The prime minister said that restaurants and drinking establishments in the affected areas are required to shorten their opening hours.
"The details will be worked out quickly to effectively reduce the risk of people getting infected while dining out," Suga said.
The Tokyo metropolitan government decided Monday to ask restaurants that serve alcohol to close by 8 p.m. starting from Friday, and then all dining facilities, including those which do not serve alcohol, to close at 8 p.m. from Jan. 12 to Jan. 31.
Saitama Prefecture will take a similar step, according to sources.
The Tokyo metropolitan government began asking that restaurants, bars and karaoke venues serving alcohol to close by 10 p.m. in late November. Those that complied were offered compensation, but the move has had no real effect in reducing virus numbers.
Tokyo's call for shortening business hours was originally scheduled to end on Dec. 17, but has been extended to Jan. 11, with the three nearby prefectures following suit.
"Since the Tokyo metropolitan area and surrounding prefectures are connected, we are coordinating with each other to implement (more) effective measures," Koike said.
As things stand, there are currently no penalties for people or establishments who fail to comply with new measures announced by the government.
Suga said Monday that a legal revision aimed at providing benefits for those who comply with anti-virus measures, such as earlier closing times, and penalizing those who do not conform, will be sought in a parliamentary session to be convened later in January.
As the Diet affairs chiefs of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan agreed on the plan, the amendment is expected to be approved by lawmakers in early February.
Tokyo is being hit by a third COVID-19 wave of "unprecedented size," Koike said. "This year-end and New Year holidays, we are at a crossroads as to whether we can stop the spread of infections. I want you to prioritize your lives."
Koike went on to urge people to spend the New Year holidays quietly at home and not to hold any parties.
With several new, highly transmissible strains of the virus detected in Japan recently, the severity of the situation in the capital city has become more worrying.
The new virus variants, first detected in Britain and South Africa, saw the Japanese government tighten its border restrictions and ban most entries to the country while halting the issuance of new visas.
Suga said Monday that the entry to Japan of business people currently allowed from some designated countries would be banned if a COVID-19 variant is found there.