Japan is set to impose a new state of emergency in Tokyo and its three neighbouring prefectures, with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga saying yesterday that "stronger messaging" was needed to make people 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."
Mr Suga 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.
The new emergency decree will be "more targeted and focused" on high-risk areas, Mr Suga said yesterday.
He added that his government will look at imposing restrictions on food and beverage (F&B) 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 yesterday that schools will remain open even in an emergency declaration.
The national university entrance exam will still be held as scheduled later this month.
Mr Suga also said the government was working towards starting Covid-19 vaccinations by late next month. 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 on 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.
The likely state of emergency comes as there is 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.
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, 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 recorded 1,337 new cases.
Yesterday, 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 asked the national government to call a new state of emergency during a meeting on Saturday.
Mr Suga said taking aim at F&B establishments was an effective measure.
"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."
The government will table a new law in the upcoming Parliament session to begin on Jan 18 to effect punishment 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)."