Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced Monday the central government was considering declaring a state of emergency in parts of the country, after data showed countermeasures had failed to stop the novel coronavirus from spreading further during the New Year’s holidays.
While Suga has yet to clarify when, where or for how long the declaration would take effect, media reports speculate the order could be handed down this week and target Tokyo and the prefectures of Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama.
“The government will begin to consider declaring a state of emergency in Tokyo and its neighboring prefectures,” Suga said Monday during the first news conference of the year. “New cases have not declined. On the contrary, they continue to climb which means stronger measures are necessary.”
On Thursday, the nation logged a record-breaking 4,520 new cases of COVID-19. Two days later, a formal request was submitted by the four governors calling on the central government to declare a state of emergency to stop the virus from spreading further.
According to Suga, the greater Tokyo metropolitan area — which includes the capital as well as Kanagawa, Saitama and Chiba prefectures — accounts for more than half of the country’s total cases. Tokyo reported 884 new cases Monday, bringing the capital’s cumulative total past 63,000 infections.
Until the governors made their request, Suga and members of his Cabinet had largely deflected suggestions that the nationwide surge of COVID-19 warranted a state of emergency. Media reports said top government officials were skeptical it would be effective without stricter laws allowing penalties to be imposed on businesses that failed to comply with business closure requests.
Suga said Monday the Cabinet was planning to propose a revision to the country’s virus-related law during the next Diet session, which commences Jan. 18.
Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike and her counterparts in Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama are thought to be forming a plan to ask local food establishments to close by 8 p.m., and to call on residents to avoid nonessential outings after that time.
Restaurants, karaoke bars and other eateries that served alcohol in parts of major cities across the country had already been asked to close by 10 p.m. until January, including in parts of Tokyo, Hokkaido and the prefectures of Aichi, Chiba and Saitama. Residents of the prefectures of Chiba, Hyogo and Ibaraki have been asked to refrain from traveling to the cities of Tokyo, Osaka and Sapporo, and other virus hot spots.
Suga said Monday that a significant portion, if not a majority, of new cases in the past few months had been traced back to food establishments. In Tokyo, he added, such infections accounted for around 60% of cases.
On Dec. 31, the capital reported an unprecedented 1,337 new cases. “Moving forward, efforts to curb the virus must be limited and focused,” Suga added.
The central government is not considering expansive school closures even if a state of emergency is declared, Yasutoshi Nishimura, the Cabinet minister leading the country’s coronavirus response, said during a news conference Monday.
The prime minister reiterated during his address that the government aims to begin distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine by late February, starting with front-line medical workers, older people and nursing home staff.
In December, as the virus gained momentum and his political support waned, Suga had announced that the Go To Travel campaign —a ¥1.35 trillion government plan to resuscitate the tourism industry by subsidizing domestic travel — would be suspended nationwide until Jan. 11.
If the government declares a state of emergency, restarting the campaign would be “difficult,” the prime minister acknowledged Monday.
COVID-19 has continued to spread throughout the nation despite efforts to contain it over the year-end holidays. The ongoing wave of infections has been escalating since it began in late October, with daily new cases nationwide having surpassed 3,000 on several days in December.
Nearly all virus countermeasures in Japan have been strictly non-compulsory and, as a result, completely reliant on people’s willingness to comply. If the law is revised, national and regional leaders would be able to wield a new weapon in the uphill fight against the contagion.
Whether the central government has the money to support or provide cash handouts to businesses that do comply with requests to suspend or reduce operations, however, remains a major concern.
In addition, since the virus began to spread in the nation, critics have warned that public compliance with voluntary countermeasures, such as business closure requests, urging residents to stay indoors or state of emergency declarations, will dwindle each time they’re issued. In other words, they say, people will grow tired and stop following orders.
Following a revision of the nation’s virus laws in mid-March, then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared a state of emergency on April 7 — in Tokyo and the prefectures of Kanagawa, Saitama, Chiba, Osaka, Hyogo and Fukuoka — before extending it nine days later to the rest of the country.
The expiration of the declaration, which was originally set for May 6, was pushed back to May 31 but ultimately the order was lifted on May 25.
While the state of emergency was in effect, many local businesses and public schools were closed. For 49 days between early April and late March, life as people knew it was, in some ways, put on hold.
After the declaration was lifted, society began to reopen and major cities across the country began pouring money into efforts to resuscitate local economies. By July, however, new cases began to rise again and it quickly became clear the country was entering a second wave of COVID-19 infections.
The third and ongoing wave began in late October in Hokkaido, the country’s northernmost main island. In the weeks and months that followed, cluster infections began to emerge in restaurants, office buildings, nursing homes and family residences.
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