The central government will decide Thursday when it plans to declare a state of emergency in parts of the greater Tokyo metropolitan area, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said Tuesday during an executive meeting of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
The numbers of new COVID-19 cases reported each day have increased more than tenfold since a state of emergency was previously declared, by then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in April of last year.
Eight months later, experts say it’s no longer clear the public will comply to the same degree, nor is it certain the government has the financial strength to support businesses that voluntarily close.
“The impact of measures taken to prevent infections over the year-end holidays will begin to emerge soon,” said Koji Wada, a professor in public health at the International University of Health and Welfare. “It’s almost certain that severe cases will continue to rise in the coming days and weeks.”
Media reports speculate that the emergency order — which is expected to encompass the capital and the neighboring prefectures of Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama — will take effect either Thursday or Friday and last about a month.
The central government had cooperated with local leaders in order to avoid a situation in which a state of emergency would be necessary, Chief Cabinet Secretary Kato said during a news conference on Tuesday.
“But infections continue to spread at a high rate in Tokyo and the three neighboring prefectures,” Kato said. “As such, in order to protect the many residents living in those areas, the central government will support governors in urging businesses to close early, and continue to consider the declaration of a state of emergency in those parts of the country.”
The first state of emergency, which lasted 49 days, was declared initially in early April for Tokyo and the prefectures of Kanagawa, Saitama, Chiba, Osaka, Hyogo and Fukuoka. Nine days later it was extended nationwide.
The measure was thought to have been effective, at the very least, in convincing many people to stay indoors and businesses to temporarily close. But the situation is different now.
Last Thursday, Japan reported a record-breaking 4,520 new cases of COVID-19. In comparison, on March 31 — exactly one week before Abe declared the first emergency — the country recorded 241 new cases.
Abe was heavily criticized when he called for nationwide school closures in February last year. This time schools will not be asked to close, according to education minister Koichi Hagiuda.
The state of emergency Suga is expected to declare Thursday in specific regions could later be extended nationwide if the situation continues to worsen, but Wada said he believes that isn’t necessary yet.
“The narrower the scope and target of the declaration, the more likely it will achieve good results,” Wada said. “The government needs to better communicate the danger of the current situation, and the people need to listen.”
As the country struggles to contain the ongoing third wave of COVID-19 infections, which appears to be gaining momentum, there is significant concern over whether current countermeasures will continue to limit the spread of the virus.
On Monday, during his first news conference of the new year, Suga said public traffic in Tokyo had dropped only slightly in December, despite calls to stay indoors and avoid travel or celebrations in large numbers during the year-end holidays.
Nearly all efforts by the central government to curb the spread of the virus in Japan depend on the voluntary compliance of its people. That is unless the Suga administration can successfully pass a revision of the Special Measures Act during the next Diet session, slated to commence Jan. 18. Doing so would bestow upon municipal governors the power to impose monetary fines on businesses that fail to comply with closure requests.
But opposition party lawmakers are pushing back.
“Imposing monetary fines upon struggling businesses all but guarantees further economic pain,” said Yukio Edano, leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan.
Until now, the central government has been largely unarmed in its efforts to contain the virus. As the outbreak intensifies, top officials are looking to give regional leaders teeth in the fight against COVID-19.
Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike and her counterparts in Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama prefectures plan to extend and strengthen current business closure requests by asking all local food establishments to close by 8 p.m. while the state of emergency is in effect. Previously, karaoke bars, eateries and other establishments that serve alcohol had been urged to close by 10 p.m. until mid-January.
Tokyo reported 1,278 new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, the second highest daily count to be recorded in the capital after it logged 1,337 cases last Thursday.
During his first address of the year on Monday, Suga said that restarting the Go To Travel campaign — a ¥1.35 trillion government-funded travel promotion campaign that was suspended nationwide until Jan. 11 — would be “difficult” if a state of emergency was declared.
The central government is also planning to halt the entry of businesspeople from China and South Korea, among other countries, to prevent new variants of the virus from spreading within the nation.
“Japan can’t stop travelers unilaterally” said a high-ranking government official. “Decisions need to be made following an agreement with the countries in question.”
Reports of a more contagious strain of the novel coronavirus began to emerge in December, forcing dozens of countries, including Japan, to impose strict entry restrictions on those traveling to or from places where new strains have been reported.
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