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Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Wednesday voiced regret over a recent year-end dinner where he appeared to flout social-distancing guidelines designed to help halt the virus’s spread as his government faces flak for its handling of the coronavirus response.

“There was enough distance with other people,” Suga told reporters when asked about the dinner with top party executives. “But I’d like to profoundly reflect on the fact that it gave the wrong impression.”

Suga joined six others, including senior officials with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, on Monday evening for a gathering at a high-end steak restaurant in Tokyo’s Ginza district, according to media reports. All were over 70, a high-risk age group for the virus.

Ahead of Suga’s hastily arranged news conference, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, the government’s top spokesman, defended the prime minister, saying a decision on whether to attend a dinner should take a balance between its purpose and infection control measures into consideration.

The government identified eating in a setting with more than four people as a high-risk situation for spreading the virus. Asked about the contradiction, Kato said the government has not unilaterally imposed a ban on such gatherings.

Yoshihide Suga | POOL / VIA REUTERS
Yoshihide Suga | POOL / VIA REUTERS

Late last month, Suga designated the following three weeks as crucial to reining in the rising number of infections in several areas across the nation. Wednesday was the final day of the critical three-week period, but cases have continued to hit records, including in large urban centers, despite pleas by the central and local government to limit activities and stay on alert to prevent further infections.

Asked about the three-week period, Suga vowed to “protect the lives and livelihoods of the people,” but said he was not considering imposing tighter restrictions on movement at this point.

“The government has been taking various measures since the end of November, but the daily cases have been high, topping 3,000 late last week,” he said. “I’m taking the situation seriously.”

Ahead of his remarks, Tokyo on Wednesday confirmed a daily high of 678 new COVID-19 infections, besting the previous record of 621 set Saturday. On Wednesday, the nationwide figure for seriously ill patients hit a record high of 618, according to the health ministry. A day earlier, Japan also saw a record 53 deaths linked to the virus.

Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said later in the evening evening that, along with the governors of Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama prefectures, the capital has submitted a request to the transportation ministry to call on train operators to suspend all-night trains the night of Dec. 31 to avoid crowds of people looking to visit temples and shrines to welcome the new year.

Suga on Monday bowed to pressure over the government’s response, announcing that his flagship Go To Travel tourism subsidy campaign, intended to support regional business hard-hit by the pandemic, would be suspended nationwide for two weeks over the year-end holidays, from Dec. 28 to Jan. 11.

However, it was plummeting public support, growing political opposition and experts sounding the alarm that appeared to drive Suga to suspend that campaign, while the virus itself seemed, at most, a secondary factor.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday, tourism minister Kazuyoshi Akaba said that the city of Hiroshima, which has also seen a surge in COVID-19 cases, would be removed from the Go To program starting from Dec. 24 and that residents would now be asked not to use the subsidy.

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