• Kyodo, Reuters


As the government looks to decide Thursday whether to end the COVID-19 state of emergency covering the Tokyo metropolitan area as scheduled on Sunday, opinions are still divided among governors and experts over whether the situation has improved enough to lift the emergency.

While some in the administration of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga are in favor of easing restrictions, there are lingering concerns over a resurgence in infections and the spread of more contagious variants of the novel coronavirus, government officials said.

Suga said during a parliamentary session on Monday that it was impossible to say just yet whether the state of emergency could be lifted for Tokyo and Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama prefectures, stressing he would look at the latest data and consult with health experts before making a final decision.

Suga reiterated his stance on Tuesday, saying during a Diet debate that he needs to look at data such as the number of new cases and hospital beds availability before making a decision. "I need a little more time," he said.

Under the emergency, people are being urged to avoid leaving home unnecessarily, while restaurants and bars must close by 8 p.m. Businesses are encouraged to adopt remote working, while attendance at large-scale events such as concerts and sports games has been capped at 5,000.

Infections had been falling since the restrictions were imposed on Jan. 7, but the pace of decline has bottomed out in recent weeks and even slightly rebounded in some prefectures.

The decision on whether to lift the emergency comes with less than five months until the Tokyo Olympics, which the International Olympic Committee and the local organizers insist will go on despite concerns over the pandemic.

A senior administration official said an exit from the state of emergency looked likely, given the decline in infections and the receding risk of hospitals becoming overwhelmed as beds to treat COVID-19 patients have become more widely available.

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry's advisory board is expected to hold a meeting on Wednesday to make its assessment, with Suga to announce a decision at a meeting of the government's COVID-19 task force possibly the following day.

Governors of the affected prefectures were split on the appropriate direction to take.

"We are not at the stage of asking for (the emergency) to be lifted," Saitama Gov. Motohiro Ono told reporters on Monday, adding that another extension was still an option.

Kanagawa Gov. Yuji Kuroiwa said easing restrictions was "going in the right direction," while Chiba Gov. Kensaku Morita said it was too early to say either way. Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike simply called on the public to keep up measures to prevent the virus from spreading.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato said at a news conference Tuesday the decision on whether to lift the emergency will be made for Tokyo and the three neighboring prefectures as a whole.

Some health experts, meanwhile, warn even an extension would be insufficient to further bring down infections.

Shigeru Omi, head of the government's COVID-19 subcommittee, told the parliamentary session Monday that it would not be a "real solution" to either extend or lift the emergency. He noted that sources of infections have become increasingly "invisible" as clusters have become harder to detect.

A government source echoed the view, saying restrictions currently in place had reached their limits.

Yasutoshi Nishimura, minister leading the government's coronavirus measures, warned against daytime karaoke sessions, a pursuit especially popular with retired and older people, as one of the recent sources of clusters nationwide.

At least 215 people have recently tested positive in cases linked to daytime karaoke sessions, Nishimura said on Tuesday. Ninety-three were in Saga Prefecture, with ages ranging from the 50s to the 80s, but clusters were also found in Saitama and Chiba prefectures, still under a state of emergency.

Suga declared a one-month state of emergency in the metropolitan area on Jan. 7 amid a surge in infections, later expanding the measure to a total of 11 prefectures and extending it for most of them by another month, to March 7. It was further extended by two weeks to Sunday for the capital and three of its neighbors.

Like other countries, Japan has tightened border controls to prevent coronavirus cases from overseas, barring entry to virtually all nonresident foreign nationals. As COVID-19 vaccinations have become more widespread, however, discussions on how to safely resume travel are ramping up.

Taro Kono, the minister in charge of vaccination efforts, said Monday the government would look into issuing certificates to people who have been vaccinated if asked to do so by other countries.

"If requested internationally, we will have no other choice but to consider" the move, Kono said in the parliamentary session, adding the certificates would not be used domestically. Last month, he appeared to shoot down the idea, arguing it would exclude people who cannot be inoculated because of allergies.

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