The relentless rise in new coronavirus cases shows no sign of abating ahead of the new year, with Tokyo confirming 944 infections, just five shy of Saturday’s record tally, and Aichi and Fukuoka prefectures logging record new cases.

Private facilities providing coronavirus polymerase chain reaction tests have been flooded with reservations as people seek reassurance before visiting their parents’ homes over holiday period.

Potentially more infectious variants of the virus that surfaced in the U.K. and South Africa have been detected in Japan over the past week, raising alarm that this could accelerate the spread across the country. But what do we know about these variants? Osamu Tsukimori offers an explainer about the new strains and how they might affect when we can return to some semblance of normal life.

Snow expected over New Year's in Japan | NIPPON TV NEWS 24 JAPAN
Snow expected over New Year’s in Japan | NIPPON TV NEWS 24 JAPAN

This New Year’s holiday period — normally the busiest season for the tourism business — is effectively a write-off for the industry, compounded by the suspension of the Go To Travel discount campaign until Jan. 11, at least. Tourist spots from Okinawa to Hokkaido are strangely quiet for this time of year.

Officials are also warning that heavy snowfall across wide areas of Japan over the holiday period could disrupt public transit and prompt road closures. Heavy snow is expected mostly in regions facing the Sea of Japan, and the land ministry has urged people to avoid nonessential outings. Those who do venture out should be aware of the risk becoming stuck due to heavy snow, the ministry warns.

Wednesday’s (and Tuesday’s) new COVID-19 cases by prefecture (30 or over): Tokyo 944 (856), Kanagawa 432 (395), Osaka 307 (302), Aichi 294 (235), Saitama 244 (300), Chiba 218 (216), Fukuoka 189 (151), Hyogo 188 (193), Hokkaido 133 (87), Kyoto 96 (84), Hiroshima 84 (88), Gifu 67 (74), Gunma 56 (29), Tochigi 56 (83), Okinawa 47 (40), Shizuoka 46 (27), Kumamoto 44 (55), Ibaraki 37 (43), Miyagi 34 (39), Okayama 32 (23), Nara 30 (24). Source: Japan COVID-19 Coronavirus Tracker