Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike yesterday 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 essentially repeat guidelines that had worked to control the Covid-19 spread earlier this year, and came as Tokyo recorded 401 new cases yesterday. A more concerning statistic for Tokyo health officials, however, would be the 54 patients who are in serious condition. This is the city's highest figure since May.
Nationwide, there were at least 1,943 new cases yesterday, 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 a new high, with the 376 cases as at yesterday surpassing the high of 328 that was set in April during the first wave.
Besides Tokyo, Osaka also has a large number of seriously ill patients at 103. Prefecture officials have asked restaurants and bars in Osaka city to shut early between tomorrow and Dec 11.
Japan Medical Association president Toshio Nakagawa warned yesterday that healthcare institutions across the country are "already on the brink of collapse", urging more decisive leadership.
Hospital clusters have led to dire manpower shortages in some areas, while the surge in Covid-19 cases means resources that are ordinarily devoted to treating other conditions will be diverted.
Dr Nakagawa 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 yesterday 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."
He had 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 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 outbreak epicentre.
Ms Koike noted that the national government had decided unilaterally to exclude Tokyo from the 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.