Japan to widen state of emergency beyond Tokyo as virus surges

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga last week declared a state of emergency for the greater Tokyo area. PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (REUTERS) - Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga told a meeting of ruling party executives on Tuesday (Jan 12) he would declare a state of emergency for the three western prefectures of Osaka, Kyoto and Hyogo to stem the spread of Covid-19, Kyodo news reported.

Responding to pressure from Tokyo and three neighbouring prefectures in eastern Japan, Mr Suga last week declared a one-month state of emergency for that region until Feb 7.

But the number of coronavirus cases has also climbed in the west, prompting Osaka, Kyoto and Hyogo to seek a state of emergency too.

The government is finalising plans to do so on Wednesday, and could also consider adding the central prefectures of Aichi - home to Toyota Motor Corp - and Gifu, Kyodo reported, citing government sources.

Adding those five prefectures would mean a state of emergency for about half of Japan's population of 126 million people.

Japan's top government spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, did not confirm the report, saying only that the government would consider the measures for a "swift response" for the Osaka area.

Under Japanese law, the prime minister can declare a state of emergency, which gives local authorities the legal basis to ask residents and businesses to restrict movements and work.

Mr Suga has been criticised for what many have called a slow, confusing and piecemeal response to the pandemic as infections hover near record highs.

About 79 per cent of respondents in a Kyodo survey published on Sunday said his decision to declare the emergency for Tokyo came too late.

Daily virus cases hit a record 7,882 last Friday, for a tally of nearly 300,000, public broadcaster NHK said.

In a bid to help the struggling services sector, the government had offered generous subsidies to encourage citizens to travel domestically and dine out, only to pause the effort late last year as virus cases soared.

Now, it is asking residents of the Tokyo area to stay indoors as much as possible and urging bars and restaurants to close by 8pm.

"Please refrain from going out, not only at night, but also during the day," Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura said on Twitter, adding that daytime outings over the three-day weekend had not fallen, despite the emergency.

Like many nations, Japan is struggling to balance efforts to restrain the virus against damage to its economy, which is the world's third-largest.

With inbound tourism on hold, the hotel industry has borne the brunt of the pain. Last year, 118 hotels went under, a 1.5-fold rise from 2019 that accounted for about 47 per cent of total bankruptcies, a Tokyo Shoko Research survey showed.

Finance Minister Taro Aso said the government would offer one-off payouts of up to 400,000 yen (S$5,100) to businesses supporting restaurants and bars that shorten hours, such as suppliers of disposable chopsticks and wet towels.

Maximum compensation for the restaurants themselves will rise by 50 per cent, Mr Suga has said.

The latest emergency measures would not require already-compiled state budgets to be reshaped, Mr Aso said.

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