TOKYO - Japan hit a new daily high in Covid-19 cases on Thursday (Nov 12), with at least 1,651 cases nationwide, according to a tally by broadcaster NHK.
Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura, who is in charge of Japan's coronavirus response, warned of more stringent measures if the infections continue to spike, leading to an overburden on medical institutions.
"We are not at a point where a state of emergency must be declared, but we need to have the strongest sense of caution," he warned.
Experts warn that the current surge is particularly worrying, given that socioeconomic activities have, for the most part, returned to pre-Covid-19 days. Officials have, in recent days, been stressing the infection risks posed by nomikais, or after-work drinking parties that are common at workplaces or among friends, as well as in close-quarter environments.
Adding to these fears is the onset of winter, when people tend to spend more time indoors in heated but poorly ventilated rooms.
In response to the surge, Mr Nishimura said that capacity limits for large events will be kept in place for another three months until the end of February. Japan caps attendance at either 10,000 people or 50 per cent of a venue's capacity, whichever is lower, though in a trial last month, 32,000 baseball fans were packed into a Yokohama stadium over three match days.
The government has also said that the Go To Travel domestic tourism campaign should not be made a scapegoat for the spread of Covid-19, despite a surge in asymptomatic cases in popular tourist destinations with large urban populations.
Japan's worst day in its battle against the coronavirus comes despite having entered into agreements to relax travel restrictions with countries that have largely managed to put a lid on infections, including Singapore, China and South Korea.
Mainland China registered 15 new cases on Wednesday, the national health authority said on Thursday, bringing its total tally to 86,299. South Korea added 143 more cases on Thursday, raising its caseload to 27,942. Japan's total was 113,816 cases.
Tokyo recorded 393 cases on Thursday, its highest since Aug 8. Infectious disease expert Norio Ohmagari, who is advising Tokyo authorities, warned that this portends the start of a sharp rise in infections.
Osaka logged 231 infections, in the third straight day it has had over 200 cases. Aichi, where the city of Nagoya is situated, had 143 cases, the highest figure since Aug 8.
New daily peaks were logged in areas like Hokkaido, with the bulk of the 236 cases in Sapporo. Kanagawa, which is part of the Greater Tokyo region, had 147 cases; while Hyogo, where the city of Kobe is situated, had 81 cases.
These spikes come even as Tokyo prepares to welcome two high-level visitors. International Olympic Committee chief Thomas Bach will make a four-day visit from Sunday, while Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison will make a two-day trip from next Tuesday. Mr Morrison will be the first head of state in Tokyo since the outbreak.
Mr Bach, who will be making his first visit to Tokyo since the decision was made in March to postpone the Games by a year, said discussions over the possibility of an outright cancellation of the Games will not be on the table.
A Japanese panel, tasked to look into virus prevention measures, said on Thursday that it will decide by spring whether to set audience caps at sporting venues, and whether to even allow foreign spectators into the country. In the event they are allowed, however, they will likely be exempted from serving a 14-day quarantine.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has asked his Cabinet to compile a third supplementary budget for the current fiscal year to finance a new economic stimulus package that will likely include more support for businesses, as well as funding for an extension of the Go To Travel campaign.
Even without the latest spike, the Covid-19 crisis has already driven up bankruptcies and suicides across Japan, while also pushing unemployment to a three-year high.
"The government must work at full force to allow social and economic activities as well as measures to slow the spread of the virus to keep going as we prepare for winter," Mr Suga said.