As new coronavirus cases in Tokyo hit a monthly high, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga declared Wednesday evening that he intends to lift the nation’s last remaining COVID-19 state of emergency — currently covering the capital and three neighboring prefectures — as scheduled on Monday.
The decision is expected to be made official at the government’s task force meeting Thursday, which will follow a meeting of an expert advisory panel.
“The number of new cases or the rate of hospitalization are within the range to lift (the state of emergency),” Suga told reporters Wednesday evening. “We will naturally put in place measures to make sure a resurgence (of new cases) won’t happen.”
The Suga administration was hoping to remove the restrictions for Tokyo, Chiba, Saitama and Kanagawa prefectures by March 7, but opted for a two-week extension citing high hospitalization numbers. Still, when the administration made the decision two weeks ago, it had already anticipated it would not extend the measure for a third time unless the situation worsens dramatically, a senior administration official said.
The end of the emergency reflects the administration’s understanding that the declaration has taken a psychological toll on many people, many of whom are no longer following the government’s request to avoid nonessential outings.
But on the flip side, the cancellation could increase people’s movements and drive up the number of new COVID-19 cases, which has mostly stabilized in the nation’s capital. Amid fears of variants with stronger transmissibility becoming the main source of new infections, the administration is counting on a smooth vaccine rollout to avoid public anger and damage to its approval rate.
The second state of emergency, which primarily asks restaurants to close early, was imposed in 11 prefectures in early January after a spike in daily new cases. The central government lifted it in seven prefectures — Tochigi, Osaka, Hyogo, Kyoto, Fukuoka, Aichi and Gifu — after concluding that the number of new infections and the hospital bed occupancy rate had been reduced sufficiently.
Governors in the Kanto area have expressed mixed feelings about whether the declaration should be extended. Kanagawa Gov. Yuji Kuroiwa was in favor of it being lifted whereas Saitama Gov. Motohiro Ono wanted it to be extended, they revealed in separate news conferences on Monday. Ono, however, on Wednesday was more open to scrapping the emergency measure, saying the number of new cases is “within the range that can be controlled to some degree.”
Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike — who came under fire from Kuroiwa and Chiba Gov. Kensaku Morita, both of whom claimed Koike misled them about a joint request to extend the state of emergency two weeks ago — expressed her concern Tuesday evening that a decline seen previously in new cases had slowed.
Tokyo logged 409 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday, surpassing 400 for the first time since Feb. 18, and bringing the seven-day average to 299 according to Kato.
The rate of hospitalization in the prefectures has been steadily decreasing. As of Monday, 25% of hospital beds for COVID-19 patients were occupied in Tokyo, 38% in Saitama, 40% in Chiba and 26% in Kanagawa, according to Cabinet Secretariat data. All prefectures were well below the 50% threshold that would qualify them for the maximum Stage 4 on the nation’s alert level, which indicates an explosive spread of cases.
The government previously stated that, in order to cancel the state of emergency, the hospitalization rate would need to fall below 50% and there would need to be a continued downward trend in new cases.
In a sign that the public is beginning to venture outside, figures compiled by private data-tracking firm Agoop Corp. on Monday at 3 p.m. showed more people were congregating at major train stations than the average figure for Mondays at the same time between Nov. 29 and Dec. 19 last year. Foot traffic was up 4.2% at Shinjuku Station in Tokyo, 7.7% at Chiba Station, 7.5% at Omiya Station in Saitama and 8.4% at Yokohama Station.
These figures underscore concerns shared by public health experts and government officials that people who have been living under restrictions, albeit mostly on a voluntary base, would be encouraged by the warm weather to venture out. Increased contact with others could drive up new cases, they fear, including the number of those infected with COVID-19 variants.
Comparing the figures from Monday to the average on Mondays between April 12 and 25 last year, during the nation’s first COVID-19 state of emergency, foot traffic rose by between 138.8% and 217%.
At the same time, the public remains skeptical about the removal of restrictions. A Sankei and Fuji News Network poll conducted this past weekend revealed that 73.4% of respondents didn’t believe the emergency declaration could be lifted by Sunday.
The administration is counting on COVID-19 vaccines to not only subdue case numbers, but also to give the prime minister a political boost.
As of Tuesday at 5 p.m., over 350,000 doses of vaccine had been dispensed since the rollout began Feb. 17. The central government last week announced that over 100 million doses of Pzifer’s vaccine have been secured through the end of June, and that it is poised to start vaccinations for about 36 million older people on April 12.
Any operational or logistical issues that hamper the vaccination rollout could trigger a fresh round of criticism against the administration.
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