TOKYO - Japan will extend by another two weeks Covid-19 quasi-emergency curbs that were due to expire on Sunday, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said on Thursday (March 3), as an expert panel warned that the Omicron strain was far deadlier than the seasonal flu.
Their analysis underlined the potential risks of lifting pandemic restrictions too soon as healthcare institutions remained under strain. Mr Kishida advised against "risky behaviour" such as cherry blossoms viewing parties with the dawn of spring near, though this will likely fall on deaf ears amid a public weary of Covid-19.
The quasi-emergency will be prolonged in 18 prefectures - including Tokyo, Osaka and Hokkaido - until March 21, the end of a three-day long weekend, but will be lifted as planned on Sunday in another 13 areas where the situation has improved.
Still, Mr Kishida noted studies that found the BA.2 sub-variant may replace Omicron as the dominant strain of the coronavirus as early as next month, adding that he will not hesitate to roll back measures if cases were to surge exponentially again.
For now, Japan is continuing its gradual easing of curbs after it reopened its borders on Tuesday to business travellers and foreign students.
The country has for the past three months adopted an isolationist policy to keep out Omicron.
Rather than opening the floodgates, Japan is only letting in a trickle of foreigners.
The daily cap on arrivals - now at 5,000 people including Japanese citizens - will be raised to 7,000 from March 14.
This was to accommodate the anticipated large number of returning citizens ahead of the new fiscal year starting next month, as well as to allow in as many foreign students as possible before the new school year begins next month, Mr Kishida said.
There is however a waiting list of more than 400,000 visa holders awaiting entry into Japan - including 150,000 foreign students and 129,000 migrant workers - and it will take months to clear the backlog at current pace.
Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war at home will be accepted by Japan and will not be bound by the limit, Mr Kishida said.
His decision to prolong the quasi-emergency, which began in Tokyo on Jan 21 and in Osaka a week later, came as the expert panel advising the Health Ministry warned on Wednesday that the Omicron death rate was likely higher than influenza.
Last month, Japan recorded the most infections and the most deaths from Covid-19 in a single month since the pandemic began, with about 2.3 million cases and 4,856 deaths. This was higher than the second-most deadly month of May 2021, with 2,817 deaths.
Underscoring Omicron's "milder" nature, the variant's fatality rate of about 0.13 per cent is significantly lower than that of previous Covid-19 waves when the rate hit as high as 4.25 per cent, the experts said.
But they warned against brushing off the threat entirely, as the Omicron death rate was still higher than the 0.006 per cent to 0.09 per cent death rate for the flu.
Dr Shigeru Omi, who heads the government's Covid-19 countermeasures committee, said on Wednesday that "the biggest problem is that the number of newly infected people remains high".
There were 70,348 cases on Thursday, including 12,251 in Tokyo and 7,749 in Osaka.
Tokyo's seven-day average was 90.7 per cent that of a week ago, indicating that cases were on the decline. There were 255 deaths nationwide.
Dr Omi also blamed the high caseload on the tepid roll-out of booster shots in Japan.
While Japan is now averaging one million doses a day, just 22.2 per cent of its population have received their third vaccine doses as at Thursday.