Japan still faces uncertainty over whether it can lift the coronavirus state of emergency in and around Tokyo on March 21 as planned after deciding Friday to extend the measure by two weeks.
While the coronavirus situation is seesawing, infectious disease and other experts warn of a possible fourth wave of infections, which would force the government to extend the country’s COVID19 emergency yet again.
Those concerns will likely continue to put Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga in a difficult spot as the government balances safety with economic concerns.
“I feel very sorry, but I sincerely ask for further cooperation from the bottom of my heart,” Suga told a news conference after the decision.
The emergency, which had already been extended for one month, began Jan. 8.
Compared to the start of the year, new infections have decreased significantly. Until recently, Suga was eager to fully lift the emergency Sunday as planned.
The situation changed Wednesday evening, informed sources say.
He proposed an extension of around two weeks in talks with economic revitalization minister Yasutoshi Nishimura, health minister Norihisa Tamura and others at the Prime Minister’s Office.
Soon after the talks, Suga announced his view to reporters, mainly citing high hospital bed occupancy.
The pivot occurred as the leaders of the four prefectures, including Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, were preparing to request an additional extension of the emergency.
Suga wanted to take action ahead of Koike after being criticized for his slow decisions over coronavirus measures, such as over the halt to the Go To Travel tourism promotion program, and tardy responses to a wining-and-dining scandal involving government and broadcasting company officials, including his eldest son, Seigo Suga.
The second state of emergency was declared in January only after Koike and other governors requested the measure.
“Given her moves, it was riskier (for Suga) not to decide on an extension,” a senior ruling party member said.
It is unclear why the length of the extension was two weeks, with many indicators on the country’s COVID-19 alert scale improving sufficiently to meet the threshold for lifting a coronavirus state of emergency.
“Two weeks are a necessary period to contain the spread of infections and monitor the situation even more carefully,” Suga said at Friday’s news conference.
But there was “no basis” for the length of the extension, according to senior government officials. They said it was a political decision.
At a government advisory committee meeting on coronavirus measures that preceded the decision on the extension, some participants called for a longer extension than two weeks.
Opposition lawmakers are also asking why the period was set at two weeks.
If the infection situation does not improve, the Tokyo Olympics, due to begin in July, could be affected.
The start of the Olympic torch relay, slated for March 25, is also drawing near, while concerns are mounting over coronavirus variants and a possible fourth wave that may follow the spike seen around the start of this year.
Suga is expected to face stronger opposition toward holding the Tokyo Games this summer if the government cannot lift the emergency in the Tokyo area on March 21.
Hakubun Shimomura, policy leader of Suga’s Liberal Democratic Party, has mentioned the possibility of the cancellation of the Tokyo Games.
“The International Olympic Committee would have to consider such a possibility” if foreign athletes become unable to enter Japan, Shimomura said in a television program Thursday.
Suga’s administration, launched in September last year, is being rocked by a host of problems, which include inappropriate late-night visits to bars by ruling lawmakers in addition to the criticism of his actions on the COVID-19 crisis and the wining-and-dining scandal.
“We’re still unable to offer any bright prospects to the people. I’m worried about the future,” a government official said.
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