The Covid-19 situation in Japan appeared to be hurtling towards a fourth wave led by Osaka's new daily high of 878 cases yesterday, exactly one year to the day the country enacted its first coronavirus state of emergency.
This comes as more virulent mutant strains have been spreading, in particular the variant first detected in Britain, while the public grows weary of restrictions and as questions again emerge over Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's leadership in the crisis.
The Tokyo Olympic Games are due to begin in just over 100 days, but inoculation is at a snail's pace, with less than 1 per cent of the population having received at least one dose of the vaccine.
Osaka prefecture yesterday declared its own medical state of emergency, with Governor Hirofumi Yoshimura reviving a "red alert" as he warned that the mutant strain spreads more quickly and causes more severe illness.
He said the Olympic torch relay, set to pass through the prefecture next Tuesday and Wednesday, will no longer take place on public roads.
Osaka's 878 cases yesterday marked a steep climb from the previous high of 721 on Tuesday.
Experts warned that Osaka may just be the tip of the iceberg, as Japan reported at least 3,451 cases yesterday in its highest tally since Jan 30. Japan's all-time daily high of 7,949 cases was set on Jan 8.
Japan Medical Association president Toshio Nakagawa said: "The situation has never been more critical. People are now used to Covid-19 and their patience is running out. Worse, the more virulent strains are becoming mainstream."
Dr Shigeru Omi, who heads a government panel of medical experts, cautioned in the Diet yesterday that the fourth wave could see more deaths than previous waves.
Mr Suga was forced onto the defensive in a televised doorstop interview yesterday, when reporters questioned his position of not preemptively taking more stringent measures. He said he was monitoring the daily case tally and the hospital bed occupancy rate.
But experts had forecast the surge in Osaka and are now warning that Tokyo, which reported 555 cases yesterday, its highest tally since Feb 6, may log more than 1,000 cases a day by April 22.
Tokyo exited a national emergency only on March 22, but Governor Yuriko Koike said yesterday she will ask the government to include the capital among areas covered by quasi-emergency measures, which are more targeted.
These measures took effect on Monday in parts of Osaka and Hyogo in western Japan and in Miyagi in the north-east. Hyogo, whose main city is Kobe, yesterday set a new high of 328 cases, while Miyagi reported 118 cases.
But Osaka's neighbouring prefectures of Nara and Wakayama each reported fresh daily highs yesterday, as did Niigata in the north-east. Okinawa had 155 cases yesterday, its second-highest daily tally.