The government decided Thursday to lift the state of emergency imposed in response to the coronavirus in all but eight of the nation's 47 prefectures, as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe faces acute pressure to achieve a delicate balance — suppressing a resurgence of the virus while rekindling the faltering economy.
In a news conference at the Prime Minister’s Office, Abe said the country is showing signs of progress in the decrease of new patients and expanding testing infrastructure, but warned of the risks of flare-ups if restrictive measures are eased too abruptly.
Even in the regions where the emergency declaration was lifted, Abe asked residents to “gradually” take steps to return to everyday life, like avoiding nonurgent face-to-face meetings, embracing progressive changes in lifestyle like telecommuting and maintaining vigilance over the coronavirus.
“Today is the day we begin to reclaim our normality and embrace a new normal in the time of coronavirus,” the prime minister said. “Even after the state of emergency was lifted … the coronavirus continues to exist for sure.”
Reflecting on the decrease in the number of new COVID-19 patients, the government has called off its emergency declaration in 39 prefectures, including five prefectures — Ishikawa, Gifu, Aichi, Fukuoka and Ibaraki — the central government previously designated as regions severely ravaged by the virus. Residents are still asked to remain on alert and adopt what the government is calling a “new lifestyle,” including telecommuting and wearing masks.
Eight prefectures — Hokkaido, Tokyo, Chiba, Saitama, Kanagawa, Osaka, Hyogo and Kyoto — will maintain restrictions for the time being, considering their strained health care systems and fears of potential new outbreaks in urban areas that could spiral out of control. The residents in these areas are being asked to continue cutting back human-to-human interaction by 80 percent and avoiding unnecessary outings.
The government will re-evaluate whether to lift the measure in those prefectures on Thursday of next week, and in the meantime continue to request that people avoid traveling in or out of them.
Regardless of location, the government will continue to remind the public to maintain social distancing and avoid crowded areas.
The decision to lift the state of emergency before it was set to expire on May 31 — approved by the government panel of infectious disease experts earlier Thursday — is one of the biggest tests for the prime minister in his handling of the global pandemic, which has halted daily activities and pushed the economy to the brink of recession.
On Thursday evening, Abe stressed the difficulty of keeping the new infection rate low while reopening the economy, saying that the country must work to establish new ways of life through trial and error even if the process takes time.
It is unlikely that everyday life will go back to as it was before the pandemic anytime soon, he warned, noting there are neither proven vaccines nor medicines at this point.
“There are no right answers anywhere in the world about the steps to take to be all right yet,” he said, adding the government will compile a secondary supplementary budget. It will cover the cost of increasing the upper limit of the employment subsidy for companies from ¥8,330 per day to ¥15,000 per day for a worker.
Economic revitalization minister Yasutoshi Nishimura, who is also in charge of the government’s coronavirus response, said the government will reimpose restrictions if the number of patients increases dramatically again.
“We need to gradually raise the level of economic and social activities on the premise that preventative measures against infectious disease are thoroughly implemented, while taking each region’s level of infection and health care system into consideration,” Nishimura said.
The panel of experts is set to unveil the criteria for rescinding the state of emergency on Thursday, expected to be the number of new patients staying at 0.5 or below per 100,000 people. Other considerations include the numbers of available hospital beds and patients in a serious condition.
However, the nation faces numerous hurdles before it can achieve a return to pre-coronavirus normality. The country has stubbornly resisted increasing virus testing to higher levels, an essential prerequisite for safe reopening and the first step before potentially infected contacts can be traced and isolated to halt outbreaks.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Government admitted Monday it had undercounted COVID-19 patients in the capital by 76, conceding that public health centers carrying out virus testing have become overwhelmed and did not have enough manpower to report tallies back to the government.
As of Thursday morning, more than 16,000 people have been infected with the new coronavirus in Japan and about 700 people have died. Tokyo, where the number of cases is highest, reported only 10 new patients Wednesday.
Abe said the country will extend the availability of an antigen test that only requires about 30 minutes covering about 20,000 to 30,000 people per day by next month.
The prime minister initially declared the state of emergency on April 7 in seven prefectures, later expanding it nationwide on April 16. Leaders in Japan lack the authority to actually enforce business shutdowns with penalties, as has been done in the United States and Europe.
Abe had said the government was concerned about mass movement of people ahead of and during the Golden Week holidays, between late April and early May, that could have further spread the virus and exacerbated the situation.
But the unilateral emergency declaration unleashed a backlash from some governors of prefectures with relatively low numbers of new patients.
Even though the prime minister decided last Monday to keep the emergency declaration effective through the end of the month, scores of prefectural governments started to ease or withdrew their emergency measures — such as voluntary requests from local governments for people to stay inside and temporarily shut businesses to prevent the virus transmission.
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