Record Covid-19 cases in Tokyo, heavy snow curtail New Year celebrations in Japan

Vehicles are stranded on the snow-covered Kanetsu expressway in Minamiuonuma in Niigata Prefecture, on Dec 18, 2020.

TOKYO (REUTERS) - New coronavirus infections in Tokyo hit a record high of more than 1,300 on Thursday (Dec 31), raising fears of an explosion in cases, as New Year's Eve celebrations were curtailed to help country battle a third wave of the pandemic.

The daily number of Covud-19 infections totalled 1,337 in the Japanese capital on Thursday, metropolitan government officials said, exceeding the 1,000 mark for the first time since the pandemic began earlier this year and deepening concerns about hospital capacity. Tokyo's previous record of 949 cases was logged last Saturday.

Nationwide, the number of daily cases eclipsed 4,000 for the first time, with record new cases also reported in Fukuoka, Saitama and Gifu prefectures, according to a Kyodo News tally of figures released by local governments.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has urged people to celebrate New Year quietly, and avoid non-essential outings, amid the twin crises.

Scores of flights were also cancelled as heavy snowfall hit several areas of Japan on Thursday.

Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways cancelled or planned to cancel a total of around 140 flights, public broadcaster NHK reported, adding that a bullet train had suspended services in some parts of the northern Yamagata prefecture.

A 70-year-old man died in the northern Iwate prefecture after he apparently fell into a river while trying to clear snow with a shovel loader machine, NHK said.

Japan has been battling a third wave of Covid-19 infections in recent weeks and on Monday started barring the entry of non-resident foreign nationals after detecting variants of the virus from Britain and South Africa.

Japanese Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura said on Wednesday that the government may have to consider declaring a state of emergency if the number the Covid-19 cases grow.

Japan's Imperial Household Agency has cancelled an annual New Year's event set for Jan 2, at which Emperor Naruhito and other imperial family members were due to greet well wishers.

People have been asked to stagger visits to shrines, traditionally popular destinations over New Year's Eve and New Year's Day.

In Tokyo, where governor Yuriko Koike has warned of a potential explosion in COVID-19 cases amid record daily increases, all-night train services will be suspended from late Dec 31 to Jan 1.

"I want to emphasise again that there is no New Year holidays for the coronavirus. I urge people to spend quiet holidays staying at home with families," Kyodo news agency quoted Ms Koike as telling reporters on Thursday.

Prime minister Suga met ministers including Health Minister Norihisa Tamura and Economy Minister Nishimura on Thursday to discuss Tokyo's coronavirus situation, local media said.

About 3,400 people have died in Japan from over 233,000 cases amid the pandemic so far.

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