TOKYO • Japan is expecting an explosive surge in coronavirus cases, officials said, as the government continued to refrain from declaring a state of emergency despite calls from the US and prominent local figures for more decisive action to fight the pandemic.
"We are really continuing on the brink of the brink," Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura said yesterday, adding that the situation in the capital of Tokyo, where confirmed cases have more than doubled in a week to almost 700, was of particular concern.
The government said it has told regions with the most serious outbreaks to save hospitals beds for severely ill patients, while keeping those with milder or no symptoms at home or in hotels.
The move - reflecting worries about the growing strain on Japan's healthcare system - came amid growing clamour for tighter curbs on people's movements to stem the rising tide of infections.
The government has so far been reluctant to pull the trigger, warning of the heavy damage that could ensue in the world's third-biggest economy, already close to recession. Instead, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has urged school closures and called on citizens to avoid unnecessary gatherings.
The US government yesterday joined a chorus of prominent domestic voices - including the governor of Tokyo and Internet billionaire Hiroshi Mikitani - for Mr Abe to declare a state of emergency to slow the outbreak.
The warning from the US embassy in Tokyo to American citizens singled out Japan's lack of widespread testing and stressed the potential strain on its healthcare system.
"The Japanese government's decision to not test broadly makes it difficult to accurately assess the Covid-19 prevalence rate," the embassy said on its website.
"We believe a significant increase in Covid-19 cases makes it difficult to predict how the (healthcare) system will be functioning in the coming weeks."
If US citizens wanted to return to America from Japan they should do so now, or risk remaining abroad for an "indefinite period", it added.
Until now, Japan has been hospitalising all coronavirus patients, regardless of whether they show symptoms. But beds are already filling up in Tokyo and threaten to fill up elsewhere, experts said.
HARD TO ASSESS
The Japanese government's decision to not test broadly makes it difficult to accurately assess the Covid-19 prevalence rate.
THE U.S. EMBASSY IN TOKYO, in a message on its website.
Japan has so far been spared the kind of explosive surge seen in parts of Europe, the United States and elsewhere, with nearly 2,800 cases and 73 deaths so far.
Meanwhile, Japanese ruling party executive Fumio Kishida yesterday said he has agreed with Mr Abe to offer 300,000 yen (about S$4,000) cash per household that suffers a certain degree of income fall from the pandemic.
Mr Kishida, policy chief of the Liberal Democratic Party, also said he will work with the government over the weekend on details of an economic stimulus package to be rolled out next week.