The governors of Tokyo and three prefectures neighboring the capital on Saturday urged the central government to declare a state of emergency following a resurgence of COVID-19 cases.
The governors of Saitama, Chiba and Kanagawa prefectures joined Tokyo in making the request.
Economy minister Yasutoshi Nishimura told reporters at a briefing after meeting the governors that the government would need to hear from experts before deciding on whether to make an emergency declaration.
Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said the high number of cases in the four prefectures has put an increasing burden on the health care system, even amid calls on citizens and businesses to take measures to prevent the spread of infections. Koike said it has become critical that more steps be taken to curb the movement of people, leading to the request for the emergency declaration.
“We have shared a recognition that the four prefectures are in a grave situation now, which possibly needs a state of emergency declaration,” Nishimura, the minister in charge of the government's coronavirus response, said after a three-hour meeting with the four governors.
While the central government discusses its next steps, Nishimura said he asked the governors to implement their own stronger measures “immediately.”
Nishimura, who earlier this week said a state of emergency could be necessary if cases continued to rise, said he had asked governors to request that businesses further shorten their hours, that residents avoid nonessential outings after 8 p.m. and that companies make use of remote work. He also said the government would beef up financial support for establishments that comply with such requests.
There was no immediate word on whether the governors would seek school closures. Japan was one of the first countries in the world to shutter schools, with then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe calling for closures in February.
Japan has avoided the harsh lockdowns seen in other nations, with no legal mechanism to enforce closure requests and calls for people to stay home.
The government hopes to pass legislation allowing penalties for noncompliance in the next Diet session this month.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who took office this fall after Abe resigned, has been criticized for his government's response to the new wave of infections, and in particular its support of a controversial program promoting domestic travel.
The Go To Travel campaign has been suspended over the New Year's holiday period — when many Japanese travel to visit family — and government officials have urged people to stay home to help suppress the new wave.
The government has been reluctant to impose a new state of emergency, for fear of the economic impact.
The rise in COVID-19 cases is compounding a seasonal increase in hospitalizations, said Fumie Sakamoto, infection control manager at St. Luke's International Hospital in Tokyo.
"The Japanese government has not done a great deal to control the infection," Sakamoto said. "I would expect the (infection) numbers will get bigger in the coming days, and the emergency declaration should have come earlier, probably during December or November."
The new spike in infections also comes little more than six months before Tokyo is set to host the virus-delayed Olympic Games.
Tokyo 2020 was postponed last spring as the scale of the pandemic became clear, but despite optimism from officials and organizers, most of the Japanese public is opposed to holding the Games this summer, favoring a further delay or outright cancellation.
The developments on Saturday came as Tokyo reported 814 new COVID-19 cases, two days after the capital saw a record 1,337 infections. Among the daily total Saturday, 118 cases involved people age 65 or older while the number of severely ill patients, based on city’s standards, came to 94, up eight from the previous day.
On Thursday, Tokyo logged a record 1,337 new infections, exceeding the 1,000 mark for the first time since the pandemic began. A nationwide record was also set Thursday, with 4,520 new cases.
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