Tokyo and its three neighboring prefectures will remain under a COVID-19 state of emergency for two more weeks, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced Friday evening, in a move understood to be aimed at easing burdens on hospitals — and wrestling back prominence as a leader, in the public eye, from Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike.
Public health experts and governors in Chiba, Tokyo, Kanagawa and Saitama prefectures, who had been nervous about lifting the declaration prematurely and the risk of a rebound in novel coronavirus infections, have not objected to the declaration being kept in place until March 21.
Having already extended the measure once in early February, the Suga administration had hoped to lift the state of emergency in all prefectures by March 7 and shift gears to crank up economic activity.
But after considering the apprehension among experts over the risk of a resurgence of the virus as well as pressure on health care resources, the prime minister changed direction — the same evening Koike had intended to issue a call for an extension.
Instead of waiting until Friday, Suga agreed to hold an impromptu gaggle with reporters Wednesday evening to express his intention to continue the state of emergency for two more weeks, ahead of a planned request by Koike and other governors.
By doing so, it’s understood Suga hoped to prevent criticism that his administration’s response was too little, too late — as was said in early January when the four governors asked jointly for a state of emergency to be declared before he had reached a decision.
“Frankly speaking, I’m very sorry to have to extend the state of emergency,” Suga said in a meeting of the Upper House Budget Committee on Friday morning.
Suga had initially vowed to improve the pandemic situation by Feb. 7. In early February, when that had proved impossible, he again said that his administration would deploy thorough measures to ensure the declaration could be lifted across all prefectures in a month’s time.
As justification for the second extension, the central government has been emphasizing that the health care systems in the four Kanto region prefectures still subject to the declaration are under intense pressure.
The hospital bed occupancy rates in those areas have fallen below 50% — the threshold for the highest level of a four-stage scale, at which infections are said to be spreading explosively. But the rates remain high: 47% in the prefecture of Chiba, 42% in Saitama, 31% in Tokyo and 29% in Kanagawa as of Wednesday, according to Cabinet Secretariat data.
“Although the number of new COVID-19 cases overall has been decreasing and the rates of hospital beds in use are at stage 3 (20% or above), the rate hasn’t hit a stable point,” said Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato in a Friday morning briefing.
The central government had previously stated that the state of emergency would be canceled once metrics in six categories, including hospital bed occupancy, fall below the stage 4 level.
Suga lifted the state of emergency in six prefectures including Osaka and Aichi last week, after concluding they had met the necessary criteria — and under pressure from governors to roll back restrictions.
“As for Tokyo and the three other prefectures, I’ll be making a decision on whether to lift the state of emergency,” Suga said Feb. 26. “I’m hoping all necessary measures will be taken thoroughly, including shortened business hours, to make sure the declaration can be lifted on March 7 in all prefectures.
“It’s crucial to put preventive measures in place thoroughly now,” he stressed, “so that (the state of emergency) can be lifted nationwide on March 7.”
However, public health experts — including Shigeru Omi, the chair of the government’s subcommittee on its COVID-19 response — were not enthusiastic about terminating the state of emergency in the Kanto areas on that time scale. Koike deemed the decision premature and was worried that it would stoke a false sense of security among the public in Tokyo, where the declaration is still in place.
Additionally, Koike was anxious about the slowing pace of the decline in new infections, indicating her skepticism to reporters Tuesday with a suggestion that a schedule to lift the emergency measures on Sunday was “not on track.”
Alarmed by the possibility that the central government would go ahead with lifting the emergency declaration, Koike rallied governors of neighboring prefectures — Kensaku Morita of Chiba, Motohiro Ono of Saitama and Yuji Kuroiwa of Kanagawa — and prepared to submit a joint request for a two-week extension on Wednesday evening.
Then came Suga’s impromptu gaggle. “I’m thinking that a roughly two-week extension is necessary to protect lives and livelihoods,” he said around 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, ahead of the governors’ planned request — which in the end was not submitted after it failed to find support from Morita and Kuroiwa, both close Suga allies.
“After consultation with experts and officials, I would like to make a final decision,” the prime minister said confidently.
A senior administration official close to Suga strongly denied any suggestion that the prime minister had altered course on the extension after anticipating the governors’ request, stressing that the decision had been made independently. At the sudden informal press audience, Suga repeatedly underscored that he would be making the decision.
Suga and Koike have often been at odds over how to respond to the novel coronavirus. The prime minister exercises a degree of caution with regards to the governor, who is a career politician known to be savvy at grasping trends in popular opinion early and getting the public on her side. He is understood to have disdain for her style, said to embrace political theatrics.
Moreover, Suga is mindful of the possibility that Koike could return to national politics — a development that could threaten his grip on the Liberal Democratic Party in a critical Lower House election year. With the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election, seen as a prelude to a general election that must be held by October, set for July, the two sides could become locked in a fierce battle for political control.
Intense backlash over Suga’s perceived sluggishness in declaring Japan’s second state of emergency over the virus has contributed to a plummeting decline in his Cabinet’s approval rating. For the prime minister, it would’ve been seen as a rout if Koike and other governors had seized the initiative by submitting their extension request first.
Suga might have outmaneuvered Koike in the political wrangle over virus control this time around, but the administration’s path forward remains uncertain.
The debate has now moved on to whether the government will really be able to end the state of emergency by March 21. The two-week extension is more or less arbitrary and not necessarily based on scientific evidence, with one week appearing too short and one month conversely too long, the senior government official admitted.
The administration decided on two weeks to “wait and see what happens,” while Koike designated the same time frame at least partially with the Summer Olympics in mind. A torch relay is expected to begin March 25, and it would be considered ideal to end the state of emergency by then.
Whether the administration can move ahead and remove restrictions tied to the state of emergency by March 21 will be the next watershed moment. Although it has been concerned about the economic impacts of the emergency measures, it is not intending to cancel them prior to March 21, according to the official.
“If the two-week extension is decided, we’ll be giving it everything we’ve got,” Suga said Friday morning.
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