Japan PM Suga to declare state of emergency in Tokyo area as virus surges

Jan 07 , 2021. 27 minutes ago – 09:47 KYODO NEWS

Commuters wearing face masks are pictured at Shinagawa Station in Tokyo on Jan. 7, 2021. (Kyodo)

TOKYO – Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is set to declare a state of emergency in the Tokyo metropolitan area on Thursday, authorizing more robust measures to fight a recent surge in coronavirus infections.

The emergency declaration, which will be in place for one month, will entail asking residents to stay home and calling for businesses including restaurants, entertainment facilities and department stores to stop serving alcohol by 7 p.m. and close by 8 p.m.

The move comes a day after the daily number of new coronavirus cases in Japan topped 6,000 for the first time, fanning concerns hospitals could soon become overwhelmed.

Residents of the area covered by the state of emergency — Tokyo, Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama prefectures — will not be subject to a hard lockdown as some other countries have imposed.

They will merely be asked to refrain from nonessential trips outside the home, especially after 8 p.m., according to a draft of a revision to the government’s basic plan for dealing with the coronavirus obtained by Kyodo News.

Schools will remain open, unlike the nationwide closures during the previous state of emergency last spring. Firms will be encouraged to have employees work from home or stagger their shifts, with the goal of reducing the number of people in the office by 70 percent.

The government will give financial support for businesses that comply with its request to shorten opening hours and “name and shame” those that do not, according to the basic plan.

An advisory panel of experts in infectious diseases and public health as well as economic and legal matters is expected to approve the government’s plan for the state of emergency on Thursday.

Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister in charge of COVID-19 response, is slated to explain the decision to parliament before the government task force finalizes it.

Legislation was enacted last year giving the government the authority to make the call, which provides a legal basis for governors to ask residents to stay home and enables stronger steps to deal with outbreaks, including the requisition of medical supplies and food as well as expropriation of private land for emergency health facilities.

A state of emergency was previously declared in Tokyo and six other prefectures in early April during Japan’s first wave of infections, and was expanded nationwide later that month. It was lifted in steps in May as coronavirus cases subsided.

Suga had been reluctant to repeat the move, hoping instead to strike a balance between curbing outbreaks and reviving the battered economy. But the prime minister has faced mounting pressure as his support ratings have plummeted in part due to public dissatisfaction with his COVID-19 response.

A third wave of infections across the country, by far the largest yet, forced Suga last month to announce the suspension of his signature “Go To Travel” subsidy program for promoting domestic tourism.

The government has also halted new entries into Japan of nonresident foreign nationals due to concerns over new, potentially more infectious coronavirus variants discovered in Britain and South Africa.

The Tokyo metropolitan area has been hardest hit by the latest surge in infections, accounting for about half of all cases in the country in recent weeks.

The capital alone reported 1,591 new infections and 113 COVID-19 patients in serious condition on Wednesday, both record highs. Kanagawa, Saitama and Chiba counted 591, 394 and 311 new cases, respectively.

Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike had repeatedly called on the government to declare a state of emergency, warning that the health care system is on the brink of collapse. She had asked restaurants and bars to close by 10 p.m., but many have not complied and the outbreak has only worsened after the New Year holidays.

Other parts of the country are also seeing an increase in coronavirus cases, with Osaka and Aichi prefectures reporting 560 and 364 cases on Wednesday, both record highs.

Aichi Gov. Hideaki Omura has said he will ask the government to add his prefecture to the area covered by the state of emergency if the worrying trend continues for several more days.