Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has decided to declare a nationwide state of emergency in an attempt to prevent the further spread of the new coronavirus, a government official said Thursday.
The government had been considering expanding of the state of emergency, currently covering Tokyo, Osaka and five prefectures, to also include Kyoto, Aichi and Hokkaido. But instead it will likely be extended nationwide due to a rise in infections in other parts of Japan.
The declaration, based on a revised law enacted last month, has given the governors of the seven prefectures the power to call for schools and some businesses to close until the Golden Week holidays end on May 6.
Also on Thursday, Abe approved a reworking of a state budget to fund measures aimed at helping citizens and businesses weather the economic fallout from the coronavirus crisis, moving the government closer to delivering a ¥100,000 handout to all citizens regardless of their income levels, government sources said.
Abe, who had questioned the effectiveness of a blanket cash distribution plan, pulled an about-face after facing pressure from Komeito, the junior coalition partner of his Liberal Democratic Party, which floated the idea to help support struggling households.
Economists are saying Japan has entered a recession as stay-at-home requests by local authorities and business suspensions are dealing a blow to an economy already hurt by the 2 percentage point consumption tax hike in October last year.
Abe is reversing a government decision to seek the Diet approval next week for a supplementary budget for fiscal 2020 from April — a requisite for launching a program to give ¥300,000 to households whose income is deemed to have fallen sharply due to the virus outbreak.
Earlier Thursday, Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi urged Abe in a phone conversation to revise the budget being compiled to enable the distribution of ¥100,000 to all citizens, a day after he pushed the prime minister to consider the new cash handout plan.
Abe instructed Fumio Kishida, the LDP’s policy chief, to consider revising the extra budget for fiscal 2020, the government source said.
Besides Kishida, he met with LDP Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai and Finance Minister Taro Aso at the Prime Minister’s Office, apparently to discuss the proposed plan.
The global coronavirus pandemic has raised calls for economic stimulus, but Japan is cautious about taking on new debt to finance bold spending measures as its fiscal health is the worst among all developed nations, with its debt standing at twice the size of its annual gross domestic product.
At ¥108 trillion, the Abe government compiled the nation’s largest-ever economic package to mitigate the negative impact of the pandemic.
Japan now has over 9,000 confirmed coronavirus infections, including about 700 from the Diamond Princess cruise ship that was quarantined in Yokohama in the early stages of the outbreak in Japan.
The idea of expanding the scope of the emergency declaration comes as the nation faces a continued rise in infections.
On Wednesday, the government task force that is tracking group infections stressed the need to reduce human-to-human contact to contain the epidemic, saying 420,000 people could die in the absence of preventive measures.
The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry’s team tasked with dealing with infection clusters said, however, that the nation is not expected to see its death toll reach those heights and that it will later release an estimate of how effective measures to reduce social contact have been in preventing infections in the country.
“We don’t expect 400,000 or so people to die. We can stop the spread of this infectious disease if we drastically reduce contact between people,” said Hiroshi Nishiura, Hokkaido University professor and a key member of the task force.
Nishiura has been calling for an 80 percent reduction in human-to-human contact to stem the rise in infections by the planned end of the state of emergency, in place through May 6.
According to the task force’s simulation, 850,000 people could become seriously sick with COVID-19 if countermeasures are not taken.
The government is aiming for a reduction of at least 70 percent of human-to-human contact. Nishiura has called for an 80 percent cut to ensure new infections level off in one month.
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