PM Suga expands Japan's Covid-19 state of emergency ahead of Olympics

The emergency status will be effective on May 16 through the end of the month. PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) - Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga added three more prefectures to a coronavirus state of emergency, as his government confronts a worsening surge of infections just over two months before Tokyo is set to host the Olympics.

The emergency status, which currently includes Tokyo and other major metro areas, will be expanded to the northern island of Hokkaido as well as Hiroshima and Okayama prefectures. It will be effective on Sunday (May 16) through the end of the month, Mr Suga said at a meeting of his virus task force on Friday.

"The spread of the virus differs by area, and it is spreading rapidly in some regions," Mr Suga said at the meeting. Less stringent restrictions will also be applied to a broader area of the country, he said.

The Premier is facing public criticism for pressing ahead with the global sports spectacle amid worries it could be a super-spreader event. The country's vaccination roll-out ranks among the slowest in the developed world - hampering Japan's fight to stem infections.

In contrast with past practice, the decision to expand the state of emergency appears to have been led by experts, who have mostly rubber-stamped government decisions.

Mr Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister in charge of virus policies, told reporters the emergency would be expanded more broadly than initially planned after experts called for stronger measures at a panel meeting on Friday morning.

With the Olympics set to start July 23, Mr Suga has few tools to curb infections. The restrictions mean that bars and restaurants are made to close at 8pm and are banned from selling alcohol, while some large stores are closed.

The move also increases the risk that Japan will fall back into recession and comes after some regional leaders this week called for the emergency to be expanded nationwide.

"The Olympics and Paralympics are the world's greatest celebration of peace and bring courage and hope to the people," Mr Suga told a later news conference, reiterating it was possible to stage the events safely.

He offered apologies for difficulties some people have encountered when trying to make vaccination appointments, adding that he was not considering putting in place a nationwide state of emergency.

Virus management is crucial for Mr Suga, who faces a party leadership election in September and must hold a general election by the end of October. While none of the opposition parties has enough backing to topple his ruling Liberal Democratic Party, sliding support could prompt the LDP to replace Mr Suga as premier.

The current emergency measure covers Tokyo, Osaka, Hyogo, Kyoto, Aichi and Fukuoka prefectures, which make up about 40 per cent of the country's economy. Data released on Thursday showed the mood among store managers and others who deal directly with customers last month suffered its worst drop since March 2020.

Japan's Olympic preparations were dealt a blow this week when the powerful United States national track and field team cancelled its training planned outside Tokyo due to safety concerns.

Hokkaido, soon to be under the emergency, is due to host marathon events that were moved to the northern island before the pandemic began to keep runners out of the oppressive Tokyo summer heat.

The number of people in serious condition in Japan due to the virus is at its highest level since the pandemic began, at 1,200. New nationwide daily infections rose to just over 7,000 on Wednesday, compared with a peak of almost 8,000 in January.

Meanwhile, Japan has administered enough doses of vaccine to cover just 1.9 per cent of its population, compared with 41.5 per cent in the US, and putting it well behind developing countries like Myanmar and Bangladesh.

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