Japan set to expand Covid-19 emergency and extend it to Sept 12

The government plans to add seven prefectures to the emergency, bringing the total to 13 areas. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) - Japan plans to expand its current virus emergency now in place for Tokyo and other areas to seven more prefectures as well as extend it to Sept 12, trying to stem a Delta variant-fuelled surge that has sent infections to records.

Covid-19 czar and Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura told an advisory panel on Tuesday (Aug 17) that the government planned to add seven prefectures to the emergency, bringing the total to 13 areas.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga was expected to make the decision official later on Tuesday, local media including Kyodo News reported.

Mr Suga's office said he will hold a news conference at 9pm local time (8pm Singapore time) to discuss the virus situation.

"The health-care system is in a very severe situation and experts are saying it's near disaster levels," Mr Nishimura told the panel, adding that he has "an extremely strong sense of crisis".

The move comes as the number of patients in hospitals nationwide soars to a level more than twice previous peaks, and severe cases have also climbed to a record, putting strain on the healthcare system.

The government had previously planned to lift the measure Aug 31. The extended emergency will cover the capital's hosting of the Paralympics from Aug 24 to Sept 5.

As Japan hits new highs for infections, Mr Suga has lost support over his handling of the pandemic. The fall comes as he heads into a ruling party leadership election expected at the end of September, and a general election that must be held in the next three months.

A poll carried out by Kyodo News from Aug 14 to 16 found support for Mr Suga's Cabinet at 31 per cent, down more than 4 percentage points since the previous survey in July, and the lowest since he took office in September.

Almost 80 per cent of respondents said they were worried about whether there would be enough hospital beds for Covid-19 patients.

Japan's states of emergency, which have few legal teeth, have become less effective in changing people's behaviour over time. Many bars and restaurants are ignoring instructions to close early and stop serving alcohol, despite the threat of fines. There are no penalties for individuals who disobey instructions to avoid unnecessary outings.

Despite the emergencies, people are going out and that has mitigated some of the damage to the economy. The country avoided falling into a recession in the three months to June as a rebound in consumer spending defied virus restrictions.

Mr Suga has rejected the idea of introducing a mandatory lockdown, saying it would not be accepted in Japan.

He has said he is relying on the country's vaccine roll-out to improve the situation. Just over 37 per cent of the population was fully immunised as of Monday and the government is looking to offer shots to all those who want them by November.

Japan has the lowest vaccination rate among the Group of Seven nations, where all the other members have at least 51 per cent of their populations fully inoculated.

The spread of the Delta variant, however, has caused renewed surges in serious cases, even in countries such as Israel that have vaccinated the majority of their population.

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