The central government offered a mixed outlook for the nation Thursday when it comes to lifting the state of emergency imposed over the new coronavirus, easing restrictions imposed on three prefectures in the Kansai region but maintaining them on Hokkaido and the greater Tokyo metropolitan area.
The government advisory panel determined that new cases of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus, are declining in Osaka, Hyogo and Kyoto prefectures to a level at which easing regulations is deemed acceptable.
At the same time, it determined that lifting the emergency declaration in Hokkaido, Tokyo and the prefectures of Chiba, Kanagawa and Saitama at this time could spark a resurgence of the virus, even though the overall number of new cases is falling.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Thursday evening that the government will convene a meeting with its panel of coronavirus experts on Monday to determine if the emergency declaration can be nullified altogether.
The mixed assessment offers the prospect of some relief, particularly for businesses in the western part of the nation, while keeping residents in the eastern part of the country on alert.
Economic revitalization minister Yasutoshi Nishimura, who is spearheading the government’s virus response, said Thursday that the situation had improved in those three prefectures in the Kansai region based on an assessment of the number of new patients, the stability of the health care system and the ability to monitor and control infections, including through testing capability.
“Having analyzed and evaluated the infection situation at this point, it is deemed appropriate to lift the state of emergency in Kyoto, Osaka and Hyogo prefectures,” Nishimura said Thursday morning.
One of the key thresholds for rescinding the emergency declaration is whether the total number of newly infected patients in a week falls to 0.5 or below per 100,000 people. The three prefectures in the Kansai region reached that goal through Wednesday, according to data compiled by public broadcaster NHK, recording rates of 0.15 in Osaka, 0.04 in Hyogo and 0.04 in Kyoto.
Despite Chiba and Saitama having cleared the benchmark, with rates of 0.21 and 0.31 respectively, the figures remain above the threshold in Tokyo, where the rate was 0.56, and Kanagawa, where it was at 1.11.
On Thursday, Tokyo’s figure marked 0.42, the first time to go below 0.5, as it reported 11 new cases on that day that brought the weekly total to 59.
Considering the large movement of people within the metropolitan area on a daily basis, the panel decided that easing the restrictions should be done collectively across the region instead of for individual prefectures. The rate for Hokkaido was 0.69.
The experts said the rate of new infections was slowing down but cautioned that rolling back the extraordinary measures introduced by the emergency declaration does not mean the virus has disappeared, and that a second surge of infections may erupt before the wintertime.
“Even if all prefectures lifted the state of emergency, or the number of new patients reported was zero for a short period of time, we should believe that the infections are continuing in an invisible way,” said Shigeru Omi, the government panel’s vice chair, at a Diet hearing Wednesday.
About 16,400 people had been infected with the new coronavirus in Japan, and roughly 780 people had died, as of Thursday morning.
Nishimura said the government would continue to assist industry groups with making guidelines for reopening businesses while putting infection control measures in place, revealing that there were guidelines for 101 industries as of Thursday including for movie theaters, libraries and restaurants. The number of sets of such guidelines is be expected to rise to 128 in total.
Last Thursday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called off the emergency declaration in 39 prefectures, including five — Ishikawa, Gifu, Aichi, Fukuoka and Ibaraki — the central government had previously designated as regions severely ravaged by the virus.
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 enforce business shutdowns with penalties, as has been done in the United States and Europe.
Nevertheless, experts and Abe credited the declaration, based on voluntary self-restraint, for slowing the pace of the infection down and avoiding the complete collapse of the nation’s health care system.
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