With no signs of a decline in new COVID-19 cases in hard-hit areas, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said Thursday that the state of emergency — now in effect in Tokyo, Osaka, Hyogo and Kyoto prefectures — will be extended, with the capital's governor eyeing an extension until the end of the month.
A formal decision by the central government — which had hoped stronger measures over a short period of time might quickly stem the rising number of cases — is expected Friday, including on where and for how long the extension will continue. Both the government’s subcommittee on its coronavirus response and task force meetings are due to be held on Friday, where they will discuss the emergency and the likely prolongation beyond its original date of expiration.
"'I declared a state of emergency to suppress the flow of people in a short, targeted manner, taking advantage of the Golden Week holidays, and I believe the flow of people did decline during Golden Week," Suga said Thursday evening, stressing the declaration's effectiveness.
Suga met on Thursday with health minister Norihisa Tamura, transportation minister Kazuyoshi Akaba, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato and Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister leading the nation's COVID-19 response. They also met the day before.
Still, an extension will certainly trigger a fresh wave of skepticism over the feasibility of hosting the Summer Olympics ahead of a rumored visit by International Olympics Committee President Thomas Bach later this month. Some critics have claimed the declaration’s end date was arbitrarily set for next week to accommodate Bach’s visit. The prime minister denied the Olympics factored into the emergency's timeline during an April 23 news conference.
The likelihood of an extended emergency reflects the surge in new cases driven by variants, which has shown no signs of slowing down. Experts have also said that the health care system in hard-hit Osaka has essentially collapsed.
In addition to the state of emergency, the central government is expected to designate multiple cities in as many as six more prefectures — with Hokkaido, Tokushima, Mie, Gifu, Ehime and Fukuoka seen as prime candidates — as areas where less stringent, quasi-emergency countermeasures will be enforced.
On Thursday, governors urged the central government to extend the emergency, with Osaka officially requesting an extension. Tokyo, Hyogo and Kyoto prefectures are expected to follow suit.
“Under these circumstances, I don’t believe relaxing current measures is an option,” said Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, adding the number of new cases and seriously ill patients are not abating significantly.
Koike then held a videoconference with the governors of Chiba, Saitama and Kanagawa, all of whom agreed to an extension of the state of emergency for Tokyo and quasi-emergency measures for the capital's closest neighbors.
Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura similarly said on Thursday it would be difficult to relax or lift the current measures in place under the state of emergency.
In several prefectures, hopes for a quick improvement in the situation are evaporating. The health ministry reported the number of COVID-19 patients in a serious condition was 1,098 nationwide on Wednesday after hitting a record high of 1,114 the day before. Tokyo logged 591 new cases on Thursday, a decrease of 436 cases compared to the same day last week, but that drop may be due to lower testing numbers during the Golden Week holidays.
In Tokyo, the highly infectious N501Y mutation was found in close to 65% of screened positive tests between April 26 and Sunday, while Osaka has regularly seen its daily case count exceed 1,000 since mid-April. In a clear sign of the strain on Osaka's medical system, there have been multiple cases of patients in a serious condition dying at home after they could not be admitted to hospital due to overcapacity.
During the emergency, prefectural governments have been asking restaurants that serve alcohol or offer karaoke to close temporarily, while those not serving alcohol are being asked to close by 8 p.m. Prefectures have also requested that shopping malls close but are allowing mall stores that sell essential goods to stay open.
Whether or not to continue with the same countermeasures in place during the state of emergency has been a subject of deliberations between the central and prefectural governments.
On Thursday, some central government officials were hoping to partially dial back some measures incorporated in the emergency, insisting that they were only meant to be in place during the Golden Week holidays.
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