TOKYO - Japan reported more than 10,000 Covid-19 cases in a single day for the first time on Thursday (July 29), alarming experts who warned that the government seemed to have run out of ideas on how to stem the spread of infections.
The surge in cases will likely pile the pressure on Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, whose support is plummeting at the worst possible time before an election, which is due by Oct 21.
Thursday's tally of 10,699 new infections surpassed the day-old record of 9,576 cases by 11.7 per cent. Mr Suga, addressing reporters in a doorstop interview, acknowledged the presence of "various opinions" but did not offer any new ideas beyond repeating reminders to avoid non-essential outings.
Nor did he admit to any reduced impact of a state of emergency, after government adviser Shigeru Omi had earlier in the day cited a confluence of factors for the surging numbers, including an astonishing lack of crisis, fatigue over emergency curbs, the summer holidays, the more contagious Delta variant, as well as the Olympic Games.
The Games have been seen as being accorded "special treatment" while other domestic events and milestone ceremonies are being scrapped. One school of thought is that the holding of the Games has inadvertently blunted the sense of crisis.
Mr Suga stood his ground on Thursday, resisting calls to suspend the Olympics by saying that it should not be made a scapegoat for the ongoing surge. He noted that the event is taking place in a "bubble", with visitors subject to a strict testing regime.
This follows the dismissal by Games organisers earlier on Thursday of any correlation to the current spike. Testing at airport immigration as well as in the Games Village have picked up 193 cases since July 1.
Still, amid the surge in cases, the government will likely announce a state of emergency on Friday in the prefectures of Chiba, Kanagawa, Saitama and Osaka. This will begin next Monday and run until Aug 31.
Concurrently, an ongoing state of emergency in Tokyo and Okinawa, which was set to lapse on Aug 22, will be extended until Aug 31, public broadcaster NHK said.
Lighter "quasi-emergency" measures will be imposed in Hokkaido, Ishikawa, Kyoto, Hyogo and Fukuoka prefectures, also from next Monday to Aug 31.
The bulk of the new cases, however, are centred in the four Greater Tokyo prefectures of Tokyo, Chiba, Kanagawa and Saitama, which host a majority of Games events. The four prefectures collectively accounted for 6,469 cases - or 60.5 per cent of the total - on Thursday.
Dr Norio Ohmagari of the Disease Control and Prevention Centre warned that the current explosive growth in cases in Tokyo is unprecedented.
Even the worst-case forecasts by computer modelling earlier this month showed that Tokyo would exceed 3,000 cases only in early August. But the 3,865 cases on Thursday marked the second straight day Tokyo has surpassed 3,000 infections.
Kyoto University public health expert Hiroshi Nishiura, a former government adviser who is now one of the most vocal advocates for the Games to be halted, said that an increase at current rates will lead to more than 10,000 cases a day in Tokyo alone by next month.
One key government policy to curb infections is the imposition of a curfew of 8pm on dine-in service, as well as an all-day ban on alcohol sales in emergency areas.
Yet, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato told a regular press briefing on Thursday that "several thousand" businesses in Tokyo are ignoring these guidelines, citing a government survey.
Breaking the rules comes with a fine of up to 300,000 yen (S$3,700), but this is being seen as a slap on the wrist. Mr Kato noted that the most common reasons cited for flouting the measures are the slow disbursement of government support and massive customer demand.
Dr Takaji Wakita, director-general of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases, said: "The administration has failed to convince people of the urgency nor convey that general medical services are on the brink."