TOKYO (REUTERS) - Japan decided on Thursday (Aug 5) to expand its Covid-19 emergency restrictions to cover more than 70 per cent of the population, as a surge in cases strained hospitals in the Olympics host city Tokyo and other parts of the country.
Japan had avoided the explosive outbreaks seen elsewhere.
But infections are rising fast as new cases hit record highs in Tokyo, overshadowing the July 23-Aug 8 Olympics and fuelling doubts over Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's handling of the pandemic.
Mr Suga announced the new steps - which are mostly voluntary, unlike strict lockdowns overseas - as new daily cases in Tokyo hit a record 5,042.
Nationwide new cases topped 15,000 for the first time, while medical advisors to the capital said the Tokyo figure could double in two weeks, NHK public TV reported.
"The situation on the ground (at hospitals) is extremely severe," Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura told a panel of experts before Suga's formal announcement.
He said serious cases had doubled in the past two weeks.
The panel signed off on the proposal, but Mr Nishimura told a news conference some members had warned the situation was severe enough to require a nationwide state of emergency.
Mr Suga told reporters the government was "not considering that now" and would focus on hot-spot areas.
Six prefectures including Tokyo are already under full states of emergency to last through Aug 31.
Another five are under less strict directives, meaning just over half the population is covered by some restrictions.
Both types of curbs have recently focused on asking restaurants to close early and stop serving alcohol while urging people to stay at home as much as possible.
Mr Suga on Thursday also asked people to refrain from travel during summer holidays.
The latest steps, to take effect from Sunday, mean that more than 70 per cent of the population will be under some restrictions.
Criticism of Mr Suga, his ratings already at record lows, is growing over his handling of the pandemic.
The government says the the Olympics has not caused the latest surge but experts say holding the Games now has sent a mixed message to an already weary public about the need to stay home.
Games organisers on Thursday reported 31 new Games-related Covid-19 cases, bringing the total since July 1 to 353.
It remains to be seen whether the latest Covid-19 restrictions, which are mostly voluntary, will have much impact as the highly transmissible Delta variant spreads and people grow weary of staying home.
"I do not think that more (quasi-emergency steps) will make much difference - (it's) simply a political statement," said Dr Kenji Shibuya, former director of the Institute for Population Health at King's College London.
The latest expansion follows a sharp backlash against Mr Suga's plan to limit hospitalisation of Covid-19 patients to those who are seriously ill and those at risk of becoming so, while others are told to isolate at home.
The shift in policy is intended to address a hospital bed crunch, but critics say it will lead to an increase in deaths since the condition of patients can worsen rapidly.
In response to calls from within and outside his ruling coalition to reverse the policy, Mr Suga told reporters on Wednesday that the change was aimed at regions with a surge in Covid-19 cases, such as Tokyo, and was not nationally uniform.
On Thursday, he appeared to backpedal further, saying moderately ill patients in need of oxygen treatment would be admitted to hospital.
The backlash is a fresh blow to the premier ahead of a ruling party leadership race and general election later this year.
Just under 31 per cent of residents are fully vaccinated. With 15,221 deaths recorded as of Wednesday, Japan's Covid-19 mortality rate was about 1.6 per cent, in line with the United States.