• Reuters, Kyodo, Jiji

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Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has reiterated his stance that there is no need for Japan to call a national state of emergency, even as health care authorities declared their own state of emergency with cumulative coronavirus infections in Japan having topped 200,000.

Suga said the head of the government's expert panel on the pandemic had told him "we're not there yet" with respect to calling a state of emergency.

"We need to show the results of our coronavirus countermeasures," Suga said during a prerecorded TV interview on Monday night. "I'll spearhead the effort with a mindset to do everything that must be done."

Suga said the government may ask restaurants and bars to further shorten business hours in a bid to curb the spread of the virus.

The surge has increasingly strained hospitals that are also bracing for the flu season, prompting the Japan Medical Association and eight other health organizations on Monday to declare a "medical state of emergency."

JMA President Toshio Nakagawa called on the government to take more steps to fight the pandemic, telling a news conference that "effective measures against infections will also serve as the most effective economic measures."

On Tuesday, Tokyo confirmed 563 new COVID-19 cases, a record high for a Tuesday, as the virus continued to spread across the country.

Shigeru Omi, the head of the expert panel, expressed a strong sense of crisis over the ongoing spread of infections in the Tokyo area.

Omi pointed out during a news conference Monday that slowing infections in the metropolitan area is key to containing the epidemic elsewhere in the country. He called on people again to follow infection prevention measures, such as avoiding eating and drinking in large groups.

Suga has been reluctant to repeat his predecessor Shinzo Abe's decision in April to declare a nationwide state of emergency, vowing instead to strike a balance between fighting the pandemic and restarting economic activity.

The government is working hard toward making vaccines available for the entire population to "protect lives and livelihoods," Suga told Tokyo Broadcasting System Television's "News 23" program.

Suga has seen approval ratings for his Cabinet plunge amid public dissatisfaction with his COVID-19 response. A Kyodo News poll conducted earlier this month showed the approval rating for his Cabinet fell to 50.3% from 63.0% in November. Suga said that the government must successfully curb the spread of the coronavirus to win back public support.

Suga has said Japan will procure sufficient vaccine supplies by the first half of 2021. The government has supply agreements with pharmaceutical companies Pfizer Inc. and AstraZeneca PLC for 120 million vaccine doses from each, sufficient for most of the country's 126 million residents. It also has a contract with Moderna Inc. for another 50 million doses.

While Japan is fairing much better in the pandemic than hard-hit countries like the United States, it has been experiencing record numbers of daily infections since last month, with the New Year holidays, normally one of the busiest travel seasons, approaching.

Cumulative infections in the country topped 200,000 on Monday, taking less than two months to double. It took nine and a half months from when the first case was diagnosed in January to reach the 100,000 mark. The overall death toll stands at just under 3,000.

The steady rise of cases spurred the government to announce last week the halt from Dec. 28 to Jan. 11 of its nationwide Go To Travel subsidy campaign, aimed at encouraging economic recovery by promoting domestic tourism.

Suga also said he does not plan to dissolve the House of Representatives for a general election until Japan brings the outbreak under control.

"We should not do it unless we can completely prevent the spread of the coronavirus," he said.

The prime minister's window of opportunity to call a snap election is gradually narrowing as his term as leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party ends September next year. Lower House members' current four-year term ends the following month.

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