Amid confused official messaging on Covid-19, Japan again busts record with over 3,200 cases

The surge in cases in Tokyo prompted Governor Yuriko Koike to issue a "special year-end Covid-19 warning". PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO - Japan rewrote its one-day Covid-19 tally on Thursday (Dec 17) with at least 3,211 new cases, led by a record-busting 822 infections in Tokyo, prompting Governor Yuriko Koike to issue a "special year-end Covid-19 warning".

The worsening situation comes despite Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's statement on Nov 24 that the following three weeks were "decisive in defeating the coronavirus".

Japanese media said the three-week period, which ended on Tuesday, has been a clear defeat for the government, whose muddled policies are blamed for the soaring cases.

"There has not been a single piece of data showing that the situation is moving in a positive direction," Dr Yoshihiro Yamaguchi, head of trauma and critical care at Kyorin University Hospital in Tokyo, told the Asahi Shimbun newspaper.

The surge in cases in Tokyo forced the metropolitan government to raise - for the first time - the alert over a healthcare breakdown to the most serious tier on a four-point scale since the pandemic began. The seven-day average of new cases hit a new high of 565.9 on Thursday.

Another gauge, of the severity of the outbreak, was raised to the highest red alert last month.

"Hospitals are clogged, and could soon lose the ability to perform basic functions at a critical time of the year," Ms Koike warned. "Tokyo's healthcare system is approaching capacity."

She instructed the authorities to increase the number of beds for Covid-19 patients to 4,000 from the current 3,000, although doctors are warning that there are not enough nurses to go around.

Osaka and Hokkaido have had to seek help from military nurses, and fears are high that Tokyo might also be on the brink.

Tokyo rewrote its Covid-19 record for the second straight day on Thursday, registering a 21.2 per cent jump from the previous high of 678 set a day earlier.

Despite all this, there has been no visible change in the movement of people as warnings fall on deaf ears among many who are determined not to let Covid-19 be a party pooper.

The Go To Travel domestic tourism campaign had come under such severe attack - critics say it is illogical to encourage people to travel on the one hand and avoid close contact on the other - that Mr Suga abruptly suspended it on Monday from Dec 28 to Jan 11 .

That covers what is typically one of the busiest travel periods as millions of Japanese return to their hometowns for family gatherings.

Mr Suga, whose approval ratings are tumbling, also apologised on Wednesday amid a public backlash for having attended two dinner parties - with 15 people at a luxury hotel and seven people at a high-end steakhouse.

The official guidelines ask people to cap party sizes to five or fewer people.

The PM said he "sincerely regrets" an action that would "invite misunderstanding".

Several Cabinet ministers rushed to defend him, stressing that the five-or-fewer guideline was "not an enforceable hard and fast rule" and that it was necessary for the leader to "hear a wide range of views".

Nonetheless, cases are surging across Japan, with 10 prefectures logging more than 100 infections. Besides Tokyo, they are Osaka (351), Kanagawa (319, a new high), Aichi (238), Saitama (196), Hyogo (164), Chiba (148), Hokkaido (139), Hiroshima (138, a new high) and Fukuoka (108).

Ms Koike and her counterparts in Saitama, Chiba and Kanagawa - in the Greater Tokyo region - are asking railway companies to cancel all-night services on New Year's Eve.

"We must exercise all efforts to prevent congestion, and I urge people to delay the tradition of hatsumode (first shrine visit of the new year) this time," she said.

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