As the fourth wave of COVID-19 spreads beyond Japan’s largest cities, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced Friday evening the state of emergency will be expanded to Hokkaido, Okayama and Hiroshima prefectures effective Sunday through the end of May.
Quasi-emergency countermeasures will also be implemented in several cities in Gunma, Ishikawa and Kumamoto prefectures from Sunday until June 13, adding to a growing list of areas under such restrictions.
By next week, the country’s third state of emergency will be in place in nine prefectures and quasi-emergency measures will be active in 10 others.
The central government continues to expand and extend measures as highly contagious variants push the pandemic to unprecedented levels in several parts of the country.
Quasi-emergency measures were lifted in Miyagi earlier this week but extended until the end of May in Saitama, Chiba, Kanagawa, Ehime and Okinawa prefectures. Gifu and Mie were later added to the list, as was Hokkaido.
In the areas where contingency measures are in effect, dining establishments are asked to close by 8 p.m. and residents asked to stay indoors and avoid nonessential travel.
Five other prefectures — Fukushima, Ibaraki, Kagawa, Tokushima and Nagasaki — have also asked for the authority to employ the quasi-emergency measures, but the central government has not yet given them the authority to do so.
On Friday, officials reported 854 new cases in Tokyo, 598 in Aichi, 593 in Hokkaido, 314 in Hyogo and 166 in Okayama. Osaka reported 576 cases, the first time it has logged less than 600 infections since April 5.
According to a top government official, Hokkaido Gov. Naomichi Suzuki triggered the latest expansion of the state of emergency with a strong request in light of a rapid rise in new cases.
Suga declared the country’s third state of emergency in April in four prefectures — Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Hyogo — before expanding it to Aichi and Fukuoka, and extending it through the end of May.
Quasi-emergency measures that preceded that order failed to contain the rebound in new cases that emerged in March, only weeks after the country began to incrementally lift its second state of emergency.
Whether contingency efforts can prevent the need for the state of emergency to be extended and expanded further remains a major question.
“Considering the situation in several prefectures, perhaps a nationwide state of emergency is necessary,” Kamon Iizumi, governor of Tokushima Prefecture and president of the National Governors Association, said Wednesday during a teleconference with Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister leading the country’s response to the coronavirus.
During a meeting of the central government’s coronavirus subcommittee Friday, Nishimura initially suggested that contingency measures be expanded to five prefectures. But experts on the subcommittee insisted stronger measures were needed, resulting in the expanded state of emergency.
Still, the effectiveness of these measures remains the subject of heavy criticism. Public officials aren’t able to impose fines or criminal charges for disobeying virus measures — except in cases when a business willfully resists repeated requests to close early or suspend operations — meaning nearly all appeals for residents to stay indoors or avoid travel are voluntary.
Declaring a state of emergency also comes with sizable economic costs, and extending it and expanding it twice only adds to the fiscal pain.
The Daiichi Life Research Institute projected that expanding the order to three more prefectures will bring the total estimated cost of the state of emergency up to ¥1 trillion.
The economic hit could cause up to 57,000 people to lose their jobs over the next three months.
New cases began to take off in Osaka and Hyogo in mid-March and began to steadily increase in Tokyo shortly afterward.
Mutated strains of the coronavirus — namely the N501Y variant first reported late last year in the U.K. — are close to overtaking the original virus in Osaka, Hyogo and Tokyo, where officials are checking positive COVID-19 tests using genomic screening and blood tests to retroactively detect variants.
According to the National Institute of Infectious Diseases, the N501Y variant has been found to be 1.9 times more contagious abroad and 1.3 times more contagious in Japan.
Nishimura said Friday that the country aims to strengthen its capacity to screen for variants, including one that was first detected in India.
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