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Tokyo raises coronavirus alert to highest as cases set record

TOKYO (Reuters) - Tokyo raised its coronavirus alert to the highest level on Thursday as its daily tally of new infections rose to a record 534 and its governor called for maximum caution as the year-end party season approaches.

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Japan’s nationwide tally also hit a new high of 2,363, according to public broadcaster NHK.

But it is the spread of the virus in the metropolis of Tokyo, which hopes to stage a rescheduled Olympic Games next year, that causes the most alarm.

“The number of coronavirus cases is rising so we are considering what steps will be needed with the view that infections could reach 1,000 cases a day,” Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike said.

She said the number of cases would rise further due to an increase in testing and stressed the need to prevent a rise in the number of patients with serious illness.

The city’s highest alert level on a scale of four indicates that “infections are spreading” compared with the previous, second-highest level of “infections are starting to spread”.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said the government was looking to tighten guidelines on eating out, such as by limiting its subsidised “Go To Eat” initiative to parties of up to four.

But authorities stopped short of announcing a state of emergency or any drastic steps to restrict the movement of people, mindful of the economic impact.

“I ask citizens once again to be vigilant about taking basic precautions,” Suga told reporters. “We ask that people engage in quiet, masked, dining. I will do the same starting today.”

Koike made similar pleas, outlining new recommendations for dining out. Those include meeting in small numbers, setting a time limit of about one hour and speaking quietly, she said.

Among the ways the virus spreads is by droplets from the mouth.

A private survey showed on Thursday nearly 90% of Japanese companies plan to skip year-end parties to prevent the spread of COVID-19, underscoring the pain the pandemic is inflicting on an already weak economy.

For medical preparedness - a separate category - Tokyo kept its alert at the second-highest level, indicating a need to boost hospital capacity but a notch below critical levels.

Reporting by Chang-Ran Kim and Kaori Kaneko, additional reporting by Tim Kelly and Chris Gallagher; Editing by Robert Birsel and Giles Elgood