Japan to lift Covid-19 quasi-emergency curbs

Tokyo logged 7,836 coronavirus cases on March 15, down 12 per cent from a week earlier. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

TOKYO  – Japan will lift quasi-emergency curbs in Tokyo and 17 other prefectures as planned at the end of a three-day long weekend next Monday (March 21), with the exit of a sixth Covid-19 wave due to the Omicron variant in sight.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told a news conference on Wednesday night that while the odds of death and grave symptoms were “much higher” with Omicron than seasonal influenza, it was necessary to transition to a strategy of living with Covid-19.

He was referring to a Japanese study this month which found that Omicron, while often said to be “milder” than other coronavirus strains, had a death rate of 0.13 per cent, which was higher than the 0.006 per cent to 0.09 per cent death rate for the flu.

Mr Kishida stressed that Japan will not immediately let up on basic countermeasures such as mask wearing and encouraging antigen tests before large gatherings or travel across prefecture borders.

“For a while, there will be a transition period during which we must continue exercising maximum caution while returning to normal life as much as possible by taking safety measures,” he said.

“The aim is to resume economic and social activities as close to normal as possible with an eye on the burden on healthcare systems.”

A government health expert panel last week approved a plan to terminate curbs even if the daily case tally remains high, instead focusing on metrics such as the hospitalisation rate.

With the move, there will not be any quasi-emergency in place nationwide for the first time since the measure was enacted in three prefectures on Jan 9 and gradually expanded to cover 38 out of Japan’s 47 prefectures at one point.

The curbs mainly target food and beverage establishments, which are generally asked to stop dine-in service by 9pm and alcohol service by 8pm. Non-compliance means a forfeit of government grants, but carries no criminal penalties.

Covid-19 cases are on a steady decline in Japan, where there were 57,922 cases on Wednesday, including 10,221 in Tokyo. There were 1,140 cases in serious condition – down by 30 from a day ago – and 163 deaths. 

The national seven-day average was 90 per cent that of a week ago – Tokyo’s was 86.4 per cent – indicating that cases were on a decline.

While media reports said Japan will relax its border entry ceiling to 10,000 people a day from April 1, up from the current limit of 7,000 people, Mr Kishida made no official announcement yesterday. Foreign tourists are still not allowed entry.

Tokyo stocks surged on Wednesday  on news that the quasi-emergency will be lifted, led by transport and leisure companies. The Nikkei 225 Index was up 415.53 points – or 1.64 per cent – from Tuesday, while the broader Topix index closed 26.62 points, or 1.46 per cent, higher.

While there are reasons for optimism, the pandemic has left an indelible impact on Japan’s jobs market. 

An Internal Affairs Ministry survey has shown long-term unemployment – or people out of a job for at least a year – at 640,000 between October and December last year, up 31 per cent from before the pandemic.

Medical experts are also warning against being too footloose with the lifting of the quasi-emergency, given that the Omicron variant is expected to be replaced with the more transmissible BA.2 sub-variant as the dominant strain. Estimates show this sub-variant might account for 70 per cent of all Covid-19 infections in Japan by early next month, and 97 per cent by May.

Mr Kishida stressed that vaccinations were key, given the continuing threat. Tokyo was among prefectures that have begun walk-in inoculations at mass vaccination centres run by the Self-Defence Forces.

Japan had a belated start to its booster campaign as it was slow to begin its vaccination drive. While just 31.9 per cent had been administered the third jab as at yesterday, talk has already begun on when to begin the fourth jab roll-out. Japan has secured 75 million Pfizer doses and 70 million Moderna doses, Mr Kishida said.

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