Ten prefectures including Tokyo and Osaka will remain under a state of emergency due to COVID-19 through March 7, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced Tuesday, in continued efforts to contain the recent surge of infections to a level at which restrictions on economic activities can be lifted.
The current state of emergency is in effect across 11 areas — Tokyo and the prefectures of Kanagawa, Chiba, Saitama, Tochigi, Osaka, Hyogo, Kyoto, Aichi, Gifu and Fukuoka. The government removed Tochigi from the list after seeing numbers of new COVID-19 patients falling in the northern Kanto prefecture.
"On Jan. 7 this year we issued a state of emergency, and the central government and each prefecture have implemented measures together with cooperation from the people," Suga said in a Lower House committee Tuesday afternoon. "As a result, the number of new COVID-19 patients nationwide is heading downward, but we need to continue this trend and decrease the number of people in hospitals and that of patients in serious conditions as well."
The same measures as under the current declaration will continue to be applied under the extended state of emergency, but could be dialed back or lifted altogether before March 7 depending on the numbers of new cases and hospital occupancy. Measures currently in place are government requests for members of the public in the designated areas to avoid nonessential outings, especially after 8 p.m., for restaurants to close their doors by 8 p.m., for 70% of paid work to be performed remotely and for event organizers to cap attendance at 50% of venue capacity or 5,000 people, whichever is lower.
The prime minister initially vowed to bring the pandemic under control by Sunday through a monthlong state of emergency, but has decided it would be risky to relax the restrictions now when medical resources are still stretched thin and the nation’s health care system is under strain.
The judgment to continue the state of emergency, even at the expense of chilling an economy that has long been a focus of close attention for the prime minister, suggests concern the pandemic could spiral out of control. It's likely Suga fears his popularity may tank to an irreversibly low figure if the administration rushes to call off the declaration too soon.
By the revised end date, the prime minister probably hopes that more restaurants will have complied with closure or business hour shortening requests through the revised law on special measures for dealing with the virus, which is expected to clear the Diet by Wednesday. The amendment promises compensation for those that comply while punishing those who disobey with a nonpenal fine.
Suga also expects vaccinations to be administered to health care workers by March 7, during the first phase of the rollout. That will make the revised date for lifting controls a key moment, at which the administration will likely wish to offer a sense that the pandemic’s end is near.
“Because of the measures up until now, we’re certainly starting to see positive effects, as the number of new cases is going down,” Suga said at a news conference Tuesday evening following the government task force meeting in which he officially announced the extension. “This is also a fruit of the cooperation shown by each and every one of you. … I made the judgement that in order to ensure the downward trajectory continues, we need to ask the people to pull through one more time.”
During the news conference, he said that the government hopes vaccinations will begin by mid-February, earlier than his initial goal of toward the end of the month. When asked about the delay in starting vaccinations compared with other countries, he defended the government’s actions by saying that Japan was able to secure vaccines at an early stage but admitted there is a time lag between procurement and inoculation.
He also announced that the government will bolster temporary loan emergency funds for the poor by up to ¥2 million, and those whose incomes have declined are exempt from repayment.
Numbers of new cases each day have been on a downward trend, with 24,361 new infections reported nationwide in the week from Jan. 25 to Sunday — down from 35,189 cases the previous week. In Tokyo and Osaka, new cases during the same seven-day periods decreased from 8,420 to 5,951 and from 3,359 to 2,268, respectively. The capital reported 556 new cases Tuesday, almost half the figure seen the same day last week.
However, it is too early to be optimistic about the current situation. In Tokyo, for example, 61% of hospital beds allocated to COVID-19 patients were occupied as of Jan. 27, according to Tokyo Metropolitan Government data. While the figure had decreased from 72% from the previous week, it remained above the 50% threshold so the situation in the city continues to be classified as Stage 4, the worst level of severity on the government's four-point scale. In Osaka, 75.8% of hospital beds for critical cases and 67.8% of those for less serious cases were in use as of Monday, according to prefectural government data.
The death toll in a single day hit a record high in Tokyo on Tuesday with 23 deaths, while 14 were seen in Chiba.
The Suga administration’s attempt to both promote the economy and control the infection at the same time failed, critics say, causing new cases nationwide to skyrocket and resulting in more deaths and patients in critical condition.
As the prime minister's approval rating nosedived, he was cornered, reluctantly, into abandoning the Go To stimulus programs — his signature policy — and issuing the state of emergency.
During the news conference, he justified his initial approach of promoting both infection control measures and economic activity at the same time, saying “protecting the lives and livelihoods of the people is the biggest responsibility of the prime minister.”
“I believe it’s critically important to secure jobs and allow businesses to maintain operations, but in the midst of that, I’ve wavered on whether to impose the state of emergency and ask people to comply with the restrictions,” he said.
Suga was also put in an awkward position Monday when three of his fellow Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers, including then-senior vice minister of education Taido Tanose, admitted they had visited a high-class hostess bar after 8 p.m. even though businesses having been asked to close by 8 p.m. under the emergency measures.
Tanose and fellow lawmaker Takashi Otsuka, deputy chairperson of the Diet affairs committee, did not come forward officially until Monday to confirm they had participated in the gathering together with Jun Matsumoto, a high-ranking LDP lawmaker and former chairperson of the National Public Safety Commission.
Suga dismissed Tanose from his Cabinet role, and the three lawmakers withdrew from the party to mitigate the damage, but the expose has thrown another wrench into proceedings under the trouble-ridden administration.
The prime minister apologized for their actions during an appearance at the Diet earlier Tuesday.
“Politicians are supposed to lead by example. A matter like this should not have happened and it is deeply regrettable,” Suga said at an Upper House plenary session Tuesday morning. “I, too, apologize to the people from my heart.”
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