Japan plans new Covid-19 emergency in Greater Tokyo area to send ‘stronger message’ to people

On Jan 4, the capital Tokyo recorded 884 new infections, while the number of patients in serious condition hit an all-time high of 108. PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO - Japan is set to impose a new state of emergency in Tokyo and its three neighbouring prefectures, as Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said on Monday (Jan 4) that "stronger messaging" was needed to make people understand they have to take the Covid-19 threat more seriously.

"Even with the surge in infection numbers, the number of people going out in the Greater Tokyo area did not really decrease at all in December," he said at a New Year press conference.

"An even stronger message must be sent to the people," he added. "It is the season of New Year gatherings and parties, and I must reiterate the request for people to avoid going out for unnecessary purposes."

The PM said that specific policy details and schedules were still being worked out, but local media cited sources as saying that the decree will take effect by Saturday and last for one month.

Unlike the first state of emergency between April and May that led to widespread closures of schools, concert venues, department stores and sports gyms among others, the new emergency decree will be "more targeted and focused" on high-risk areas, said Mr Suga on Monday.

He added that rather than having blanket measures, his government will look at imposing restrictions on food and beverage establishments. He called for such eateries in the Greater Tokyo region to close by 8pm - two hours earlier than the current 10pm guideline.

Education Minister Koichi Hagiuda said on Monday that schools will remain open, even in an emergency declaration. The national university entrance exam will also still be held as scheduled later this month.

Mr Suga also said that the government was working towards starting Covid-19 vaccinations by late February. This is a revised timeline from the previously planned mid-March start.

Healthcare workers, senior citizens and employees at elderly welfare homes will be the first to get vaccinated.

He also admitted that restarting the Go To Travel domestic tourism campaign next Monday as planned - after a two-week suspension - was "difficult", given the surge in new coronavirus cases.

The Greater Tokyo region, comprising Tokyo, Kanagawa, Saitama and Chiba, is one of the world's most densely populated metropolitan areas. Its combined population of 36.8 million people comprise about 30 per cent of Japan's overall population of 125.7 million.

The likely state of emergency comes amid a constant movement of people around the four prefectures, whether for work, school or play. The four prefectures have collectively accounted for about half of Japan's daily Covid-19 caseload in recent weeks.

Amid reports that an emergency declaration was likely this week, Japan's benchmark Nikkei 225 index tumbled in morning trading on Monday. At one point, it plunged over 400 points, or 1.5 per cent, but pared its losses to close at 27,258.38, down 185.79 points or 0.68 per cent.

Mr Suga said his government's current priority was to curb the spread of Covid-19 before infections reach a point of explosive growth.

While his administration has long hesitated to call another emergency - the PM said as recently as Christmas that one was "not on the table" - its calculations changed after the Greater Tokyo area registered a spike in cases on New Year's Eve.

All four prefectures hit new daily highs, led by Tokyo which busted the 1,000-case threshold for the first time to record 1,337 new cases. On Monday, the capital recorded 884 new infections, while the number of patients in serious condition hit an all-time high of 108.

Governors of the four prefectures had also explicitly requested help, asking the national government to call a new state of emergency during a meeting last Saturday.

Mr Suga said taking aim at F&B establishments was an effective measure that has precedents, as this was the way Hokkaido and Osaka managed to curb the infection spread after they each issued their own policies to curtail movement at the prefecture level in November.

"Experts have said that one of the most common causes of infection was due to droplets spreading during eating and drinking, and thus it is most effective to curtail meetings at night and ask for cooperation in shortening business hours," Mr Suga said.

While Japan's Covid-19 measures have been driven by "requests" rather than punitive laws, the government will table a new law in the upcoming Parliament session to begin on Jan 18 to effect punishments on businesses that refuse to comply.

Covid-19 dominated the half-hour news conference, even as Mr Suga also sought to highlight other policy measures - such as digital reforms - as his priorities for the year.

In September, an internal Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leadership election will determine Mr Suga's political fortunes as LDP president and hence, prime minister. The Lower House must also be dissolved and a general election be called by October.

To this, Mr Suga said: "I am not at all looking so far ahead. I want to finish one by one each of the challenges that are in front of me (before I strategise for the elections)."

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