• Kyodo

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The current COVID-19 emergency in Tokyo and other areas could be extended by up to one month beyond its planned Sept. 12 end date to allow the next prime minister to decide when the measures should end, government sources have said.

The government is eyeing an extension of at least two weeks, having deemed the strain on the healthcare system not to have eased enough to lift restrictions on business activity.

But with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's impending resignation, the emergency declaration could be extended by about one month to allow his successor as leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, to be chosen Sept. 29, to decide when to end the measure, the sources said Monday.

Twenty-one prefectures are currently under the state of emergency, with people being asked to avoid crowded areas and restaurants asked to halt alcohol sales and close by 8 p.m.

Only some of the prefectures are expected to see the measure lifted on Sept. 12 as scheduled — and even then they will likely shift to a quasi-state of emergency with some restrictions remaining in place, the sources said.

Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura said Monday that extending the state of emergency in his prefecture is "unavoidable."

Suga, who is stepping down as LDP leader after his term ends Sept. 30 amid criticism over his handling of the pandemic, is set to consult with members of his Cabinet — including health minister Norihisa Tamura and Yasutoshi Nishimura, minister in charge of the COVID-19 response — over the coming days before making a formal decision on the extension. That decision could come as early as Thursday.

Tamura said on Tuesday that the medical system is still under a heavy strain even though the daily number of new infections in Tokyo has been on a decline. "We can't be optimistic yet at this point," he said at a news conference.

Tamura said the declining number of new cases is "a result of people's cooperation," but it would be premature to lift the emergency.

Nishimura said at a separate news conference Tuesday that rather than the number of new cases, it will be the availability of medical services, that will be key in deciding when to lift the emergency.

In order to make a decision, said Nishimura, it will be necessary to conduct a comprehensive assessment of three conditions: hospital bed availability, the number of patients in medium-to-severe conditions and the total number of people recuperating at home.

Tokyo, one of the hardest hit areas, confirmed 968 daily coronavirus cases on Monday, marking the first time since July 19 that the count had fallen below 1,000. Still, concerns have persisted over the rapid spread of the highly contagious delta variant.

The daily figure was down significantly from the 1,853 cases confirmed Sunday, although infection numbers tend to be lower on Mondays as fewer tests are conducted over weekends.

One of the sources said hospitals in Tokyo, Osaka and Aichi — home to Japan's three largest metropolitan areas — continue to be strained by the large number of COVID-19 patients and that any decision on extending the emergency should also apply to surrounding areas.

The capital, which hosted the Olympics from late July and just finished staging the Paralympics, saw over 125,600 new coronavirus cases in August, almost triple the previous monthly record, which was set in July.

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