Japan warns of possible tougher Covid-19 rules on the eve of quasi-emergency

Okinawa, with a population of 1.47 million, set a new daily high for the second day, with 981 cases on Jan 6. PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO - Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, facing his first stern political test due to Covid-19, said on Thursday (Jan 6) that he will not hesitate to declare a full-fledged state of emergency if cases were to escalate.

This comes as he is set to formalise a lighter quasi-emergency over Okinawa, Yamaguchi and Hiroshima on Friday, as a leading medical expert warned that Japan was squarely in the midst of a sixth wave.

Mr Kishida - Japan's third Covid-19-era leader - nearly lost his cool at a doorstop interview on Thursday amid intense questioning from reporters, as he faced massive pressure, with the case count on the brink of spiralling out of control.

Japan recorded 4,475 cases on Thursday, a figure not seen since Sept 18. The tally was nearly 1.7 times that of the 2,678 on Wednesday, and a whopping 8.7 times the 515 infections just one week ago.

The public is taking aim at Covid-19 protocol lapses at United States military bases, whose very presence is already a contentious issue in some parts of Japan.

All three regions to come under a quasi-emergency host US bases and the lax protocol for servicemen, for whom on-arrival testing and quarantine rules were made mandatory only last Thursday, is being blamed for the current surge.

The lapses - including reports of maskless socialising outside camp premises - led Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi to stress in a call with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday that US troops must take thorough measures.

Mr Hayashi said: "We are aware that measures are being strengthened, like a mandatory mask mandate, but we are seeking further measures like restrictions on going out unnecessarily."

Mr Kishida refused to be drawn into a diplomatic wrangle by explicitly blaming the surge on the military bases, but Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki and Yamaguchi Governor Tsugumasa Muraoka were far less tactful.

Mr Tamaki also pointed to a "structural problem" in how he was not privy to data, like the number of cases at the US bases in his prefecture, while Mr Muraoka pointed to how basic measures like pre-departure tests before personnel enter Japan would form a "considerable amount of prevention".

Japan had kept its case count to the low hundreds since late-September.

But loopholes that seem to have allowed the entry of the more contagious Omicron variant, as well as peak travel and merry-making during the New Year period, have been cited as likely reasons behind the current surge.

Under the quasi-emergency, prefecture authorities can ask businesses to shorten operating hours and ban in-store alcohol consumption.

Okinawa, with a population of 1.47 million, set a new daily high for the second day, with 981 cases on Thursday, after the 623 cases on Wednesday.

Yamaguchi also has a new record of 181 cases, while there were 273 infections in Hiroshima. These numbers do not include infections within US bases.

Elsewhere, Tokyo recorded 641 cases, up 10 times from just a week ago in what Governor Yuriko Koike described as a "supersonic" rate of increase, as she announced curbs including a cap of eight people when dining out.

Tokyo recorded 641 cases, up 10 times from just a week ago. PHOTO: AFP

The neighbouring prefectures of Kanagawa (152 cases), Saitama (150) and Chiba (111) all added more than 100 cases for the first time in months.

In western Japan, Osaka added 505 cases, with 121 cases in neighbouring Kyoto and 106 cases in Hyogo, all of which were three-month highs.

Dr Toshio Nakagawa, who heads the Japan Medical Association, said Japan was already in the sixth wave and warned of a surge "beyond expectations".

Calling on the government to avoid dilly-dallying and to take pre-emptive curbs, he said: "If infections spread explosively, the number of severely ill will inevitably increase and medical institutions may not be able to cope."

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