Medical workers receive doses of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine at the Tokyo Metropolitan Komagome Hospital in Tokyo. AP
Japan’s government will extend a state of emergency in the Tokyo region for another two weeks because its medical systems are still strained by COVID-19 patients, the minister in charge of virus response said on Friday.
“For two more weeks, we will keep the measure in place ... so that we can firmly ease strains on hospitals” to meet conditions for lifting the emergency measures, economic revitalization minister Yasutoshi Nishimura told reporters.
Nishimura said the government has received preliminary approval from experts to extend the emergency through March 21 for Tokyo and three neighboring prefectures. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is to formally announce the plan on Friday night after parliament approval.
Nishimura said medical systems in the region are still burdened with COVID-19 patients and more hospital beds have to be freed.
Suga declared a month long emergency on Jan.7 for Tokyo, Kanagawa, Saitama and Chiba that was later extended through March 7. An emergency that applied to other urban prefectures was lifted last week, underscoring the government’s eagerness to allow businesses to return to normal as soon as possible.
The state of emergency, which is a non-binding request, centers around asking restaurants, bars and other businesses to voluntarily close at 8pm. Japan has never had a mandatory lockdown, but has managed to keep infections relatively low with social distancing and such voluntary measures.
Suga sought understanding for a two-week extension he said will be the last. “I will do everything we can to prevent a rebound of the infections and another state of emergency,” Suga said at a Parliament session.
Experts were divided over whether two weeks would be enough to get the infections under control, as concerns are running high before the spring cherry blossom season, when many people come out and party.
Controlling the spread of the virus, along with progress in vaccination, is considered key for Japan as Tokyo is to host the Olympics, delayed by one year because of the virus, starting July 23.
Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike and the heads of neighboring prefectures have raised concerns that a lifting of the emergency this weekend could trigger a quick rebound in infections.
She raised concerns about the people’s increased activity and crowds already forming in entertainment and business districts in downtown Tokyo ahead of the cherry blossom season.
Dr. Shigeru Omi, a former World Health Organization regional director and head of the government COVID-19 taskforce, said Friday that the Tokyo region is prone to a resurgence and urged authorities to set up “a strong system” to prevent a rebound.
Daily new cases in Tokyo have decreased significantly after peaking at about 2,000 in early January, but the decline has slowed recently. Tokyo on Thursday reported 278 new cases, slightly down from 316 from the day before, raising its total to 112,624. Nationwide, Japan reported more than 436,000 cases and about 8,000 deaths as of Thursday.
Japan saw a record 4,520 new cases on Dec.31, prompting the capital, Tokyo, and three neighbouring prefectures to seek an emergency declaration from the national government. The region now accounts for about half of new nationwide cases.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga described a "great sense of crisis" as he announced the measure, which begins Friday and is less strict than the harsh lockdowns seen elsewhere or even the country's first virus emergency last spring.
Monday's first-quarter GDP data underlined the broadening impact of the outbreak, with exports plunging the most since the devastating March 2011 earthquake as global lockdowns and supply chain disruptions hit shipments of Japanese goods.
The Ministry stressed in a statement on Wednesday that its aim to continue expanding the scope of testing nationwide to facilitate the early detection of coronavirus cases and carry out the necessary treatment.
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Infections have been reported in more than 210 countries and territories since the first cases were identified in December 2019.