Tokyo asks people to stay home, eateries to shut early amid flare-up of Covid-19 cases

Tokyo has seen new daily infections soar past 500 on several days recently and the number of serious cases reached 51 on Nov 24, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO - Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike on Wednesday (Nov 25) urged residents of Japan's sprawling capital to avoid going out unnecessarily amid a flare-up of Covid-19 cases.

She also asked restaurants, bars and karaoke outlets to close by 10pm from Saturday until Dec 17, with those that comply to be given 400,000 yen (S$5,140) in grants.

"I urge residents to avoid non-essential outings and take necessary social distancing measures if they do need to go out," Ms Koike said.

She added that the early closure request was a difficult call to make given the adverse effect it will have on livelihoods and the economy.

The proposed measures are essentially a repeat of guidelines that had worked to control the spread of Covid-19 earlier this year, and came as Tokyo recorded 401 new coronavirus cases on Wednesday.

A more concerning statistic for Tokyo health officials, however, would be the 54 patients who are in serious condition. This was the city's highest figure since May.

Nationwide, there were at least 1,943 new cases on Wednesday, including 318 in Osaka, 181 in Hokkaido, 171 in Aichi, 161 in Kanagawa and 101 in Hyogo. This brought the overall tally to 138,496 cases.

There were 21 fatalities, bringing the death toll to 2,036 people.

The number of patients in serious condition nationwide hit new highs, with the 376 cases as at Wednesday surpassing the high of 328 that was set in April during the first wave.

Besides Tokyo, Osaka also has a large number of cases of seriously ill patients, at 103. Prefecture officials have asked restaurants and bars in Osaka city to shut early between Friday and Dec 11.

Japan Medical Association president Toshio Nakagawa on Wednesday warned that healthcare institutions across the country are "already on the brink of collapse", urging more decisive leadership.

Hospital clusters have led to dire manpower shortage in some areas, while the surge in Covid-19 cases means resources that are ordinarily devoted to treating other conditions will be diverted. He said: "This could in turn lead to deaths that are otherwise preventable."

Mr Yasutoshi Nishimura, Japan's minister in charge of Covid-19 strategy, said the next three weeks are key to stopping the spread.

Although the Covid-19 situation in Japan is arguably worse than it has ever been, a state of emergency like the one called from April 7 to May 25 is highly unlikely.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has prioritised economic recovery and on Wednesday staunchly defended the Go To Travel domestic tourism campaign to spur consumption.

He said there was "no evidence" to show that the scheme has been a direct cause of the recent surge, adding: "It is a fact that 'Go To Travel' is providing support to local economies."

But he abruptly announced a partial shutdown of the campaign last Saturday, and left it up to prefectural governors to decide whether to be excluded from the campaign.

Newspaper editorials criticised the lack of clarity behind the decision, saying that it only brought confusion and bewilderment.

Incoming tourists to Osaka and Sapporo will not qualify for the hefty subsidies under the Go To campaign until Dec 15, but residents of both cities can qualify for the subsidies when they travel to other parts of Japan.

Also, Tokyo remains part of the campaign despite being the epicentre of the outbreak.

Ms Koike noted the national government had decided unilaterally to exclude Tokyo from the travel campaign from July until cases eased in September, and said the buck should not stop with her now.

Correction note: An earlier version of the article said the Go To campaign runs until Dec 15. This is incorrect. We are sorry for the error.

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