Japan expects a brief flurry of tough coronavirus measures to halt a recent surge in coronavirus cases, and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is set to announce a selective state of emergency just three months before the Tokyo Olympics.
Suga has been under pressure to take action after a sharp rise in infections in the capital and evidence that new variants of the virus are causing serious outbreaks in Osaka and the two neighboring prefectures of Hyogo and Kyoto.
Japan’s third state of emergency since the onset of the pandemic will coincide with Golden Week, several consecutive holiday days during which there is typically a large increase in domestic travel.
The measures will take effect in all four areas, which cover about a quarter of Japan’s population and a third of its economy, from Sunday to at least May 11, media reports said.
While Japanese authorities cannot enforce European-style closures, bars and restaurants will be asked to close, while large-scale events such as football and baseball games will take place behind closed doors.
Department stores and shopping centers will also be asked to close, although stores selling essentials will remain open, as well as theme parks, theaters and museums. Bus and train services will be reduced during holidays and weekends, the Nikkei business newspaper reported.
Companies that comply are eligible for compensation, while penalties will be imposed on violators.
“We have a strong sense of crisis,” Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister in charge of Japan’s virus response, said on Friday. Suga was to formally announce the measures at an evening press conference.
Japan has had a comparatively small Covid-19 outbreak, with 9,800 deaths and a little more than half a million cases, despite the absence of the strict blockades observed in other countries.
But the emergence of the UK and other variants, which account for about 80% of cases in Osaka and Hyogo, and pressure on health services in some areas appear to have forced Suga’s hand.
Tokyo recorded 861 new infections on Thursday, numbers not seen since January, while Osaka reported 1,167 cases, slightly below a record number the day before.
Earlier this week, Suga insisted that the emergency measures would not affect preparations for the Tokyo Games.
However, the virus has already caused disruptions to the torch relay, which had to take place in an empty park in Osaka last week and will be kept off public roads in Okinawa prefecture next month. On Thursday, the governor of Ehime prefecture broke down in tears explaining his decision not to allow the relay to pass through the local city of Matsuyama.
In a move that could fuel doubts about the Olympics, the Tokyo Auto Show was canceled for the first time in its history, with organizers citing concerns about Covid-19. The biennial event was to take place in the fall, several weeks after the Games.
The new emergency measures could be lifted days before the president of the International Olympic Committee [IOC]Thomas Bach will arrive in Japan to cheer on the organizers, who have repeatedly promised to organize a “safe and secure” event.
Bach, who has insisted that the delayed Games cannot be postponed a second time, sparked anger this week when he said the state of emergency was a “preventive measure” and “unrelated” to the Olympics.
“How to manage public health is something that Japan should decide,” said Yuichiro Tamaki, leader of an opposition party, according to Asahi Shimbun. “We don’t need President Bach to intervene.”
The Japanese public is firmly opposed to holding the Games this summer, according to a recent poll by the Kyodo news agency, in which a combined 72% of respondents said they should be canceled or postponed again.
The situation in Osaka is causing particular alarm among health experts. Almost all of the prefecture’s beds for seriously ill Covid-19 patients are full, and dozens of nurses will be dispatched from other parts of the country to help deal with the surge in hospital admissions.
The slow rollout of vaccination in Japan has left it with little choice but to request restrictions on business operations and movements of people, with a focus on bars and restaurants, described by top government spokesman Katsunobu Kato as “key points “of infection.
Since the vaccine’s launch began in Japan in mid-February, around 1.5 million people, mainly front-line medical workers, have received a dose and 827,000 have been fully vaccinated.
The country’s vaccine czar, Taro Kono, has said that vaccines will accelerate in the coming weeks with the arrival of more shipments of doses of Pfizer, the only vaccine approved so far in Japan.
The risks associated with late-night entertainment were underscored when Health Ministry bureaucrats tested positive for Covid-19 after eating and drinking late into the night at a Tokyo restaurant last month.
In total, 27 ministry officials, including those who did not attend the party, have been diagnosed with the virus, according to Japanese media.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism