The government must continue to keep restrictive measures introduced by the state of emergency in place even though the number of new coronavirus patients is on the decline, a government panel on coronavirus experts determined Friday.
“The panel’s evaluation is that it’s unmistakable that the number (of patients) that was going up is now coming down,” economic minister Yasutoshi Nishimura, who leads the government’s coronavirus response, said after the meeting. “However, the panel is also recommending to maintain the current framework for the time being since the speed of decrease is slower than the speed of increase.”
The panel meeting came a day after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he plans to extend the state of emergency set to expire next Wednesday. He did not give further details, but the government is considering extending the state of emergency at least through the end of the month, with an official announcement expected as early as on Monday.
Nishimura said the panel emphasized that measures put in place by the state of emergency are working and have helped to contain “a large wave” of infections.
At the same time, he added the panel also warned it is premature to dial back efforts to reduce human-to-human contact, fearing a potential flare-up of new COVID-19 patients that would ruin the progress achieved up until now and push the health care system to collapse.
“With that in mind, the panel made an assessment to maintain thorough changes in behavior unless the number of new cases declines to a certain degree,” Nishimura said.
“I think it’d be difficult to go back to everyday life on May 7,” Abe said Thursday night. “We must be ready for a protracted battle.”
While admitting it is difficult to reduce infections to zero, Nishimura said the panel stressed it needs to go “below a certain level” to lift strict measures, such as government requests to avoid going outside other than for essential tasks or to close down businesses.
He did not clarify what the level is, but he said it will be determined by experts based on the number of infections and the soundness of the health care system.
“In order to contain the outbreak in a short period of time, we ask for cooperation once again from the people, which will consequentially minimize the impact on economic activities,” Nishimura said.
The government has been urging the public to cut back human contact by 80 percent, but the threshold has not been met at major business areas in urban parts of the country.
The prime minister declared a state of emergency in seven prefectures on April 7 and expanded it nationwide on April 16.
Abe explained at that time that the government feared a mass movement of people ahead of and during the Golden Week holidays would further spread the virus and exacerbate the situation. The unilateral declaration unleashed a backlash from some governors with a relatively low number of new patients.
With that in mind, Nishimura said Friday that the panel recommended the government draw up two types of action plans — one for areas that require restrictive actions and another for areas where they can be relaxed.
In Tokyo, the daily number of infections fell this week. At the same time, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government revealed nine people died of COVID-19 — a respiratory illness caused by the virus — on Wednesday, the highest single-day death toll in the capital.
The panel is requesting to hold another round of meetings before Wednesday to propose specific changes while maintaining restrictions, including plans on how to reopen schools while minimizing the risk of contracting the virus, such as by increasing the distance between seats.
Education minister Koichi Hagiuda on Friday said the ministry will distribute a guideline to school districts nationwide to partially resume classes, prioritizing first-, sixth- and ninth-grade students.
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