Japan's public schools to be closed from next week in bid to control coronavirus outbreak

The decision comes after Hokkaido shut its 1,600 public schools from Thursday as the number of coronavirus cases in the prefecture grew. PHOTO: REUTERS

Japan will close all public schools from Monday to fight the coronavirus outbreak, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said yesterday.

The move, which affects elementary, junior high and senior high schools, will extend into the spring break, which starts on March 25, with schools to reopen on April 6.

"The next week or two will be critical in fighting the coronavirus outbreak," Mr Abe said at the outset of a taskforce meeting yesterday. "Above all else, the health and safety of the children must be prioritised, and there is a risk of large-scale infections with many children and teachers gathering for long periods of time every day."

As at 9pm local time, Japan had 213 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, including four deaths. About one quarter, or 54 cases, are in Hokkaido. The tally excludes another 705 cases on the Diamond Princess cruise liner that was quarantined off Yokohama until last week.

Mr Abe's decision, which sent shockwaves across the country, comes after Hokkaido, Osaka and Ichikawa City in Chiba said they will close schools to curb the outbreak.

Local experts have said that Japan is at a make-or-break moment in its fight to contain the coronavirus.

But there are rising doubts of the actual number of cases in Japan, which detractors say may be grossly understated due to the nation's limited testing capabilities.

Japan has the capacity to test up to 3,800 people a day, but Health Minister Katsunobu Kato told the Diet this week that it conducts only 900 tests on average each day.

Medical institutions are, in the meantime, reportedly turning away possible coronavirus patients, citing reasons such as a lack of manpower, anxieties of in-hospital transmission and the government's ambiguous testing criteria.

Tests are mandated only for close contacts of confirmed patients and those who have recently travelled to infected areas, while all others are "up to the doctor's discretion".

Even then, the Japan Medical Association pointed to cases where its member doctors have referred patients to public health centres for polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, but they still get refused.

"There is widespread suspicion that virus testing is not being done so as to suppress the number of confirmed infections," opposition lawmaker Hiroshi Kawauchi said yesterday, calling for screening at full capacity.

"Shouldn't the policy be to expand testing, detect infections early and to control clusters?"

Health Minister Kato denied any attempt to reduce numbers, adding: "It is now important for us to increase the PCR testing capacity and expand criteria by which tests are conducted."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 28, 2020, with the headline Japan's public schools to be closed from next week in bid to control coronavirus outbreak. Subscribe