TOKYO (REUTERS) - Japan will declare a state of emergency in three more prefectures hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic, Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura said on Friday (May 14), in a surprise move reflecting growing concerns about the virus's spread.
Hokkaido, Okayama and Hiroshima will on Sunday join Tokyo, Osaka and four other prefectures under a state of emergency until May 31, said Nishimura, who is also in charge of coronavirus countermeasures.
The government had originally proposed a more targeted "quasi-emergency" declaration for five additional prefectures.
"Experts told us that a strong message had to be sent to the public given the critical situation with the mutant strains," Mr Nishimura said in parliament to explain the government's retraction of its original proposal.
Three prefectures will be added to the lesser declaration as planned.
The rising state of emergency declarations come as Japan grapples with a surge of a more infectious strain of Covid-19 just 10 weeks before the Tokyo Olympics are due to start.
With the latest measures, 19 out of Japan's 47 prefectures covering about 70 per cent of its population would fall under restrictions that include closures of eateries by 8 p.m. and a ban on alcohol at bars and restaurants.
Dai-ichi Life Research Institute estimated that the nine-prefecture state-of-emergency could slash about 1 trillion yen (S$12.2 billion) from gross domestic product and cut 57,000 jobs over the coming months.
A Reuters poll on Friday showed Japan's economy would grow much more slowly than previously hoped this quarter, hobbled by emergency restrictions.
Experts say medical resources are being pushed to the brink, while Japan's inoculation drive has been the slowest among advanced nations with just 3 per cent of the population vaccinated, according to Reuters data.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's popularity has been hit by what many perceive as the government's inadequate coronavirus response. A fresh poll by Jiji News put the cabinet's approval rating at 32.2 per cent, down 4.4 points from the previous survey.
The northern island-prefecture of Hokkaido, which is set to host the marathon event, reported a record 712 cases on Thursday, while Tokyo had 1,010 cases. Nationwide, Japan has seen about 656,000 confirmed cases so far, with 11,161 deaths.
The state of emergency in Tokyo and elsewhere would run through this month, by which time the Olympic Games would be fewer than two months away.
Public opposition to the Summer Games - already postponed a year from 2020 due to the global pandemic - has persisted.