TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Saturday called on the public to cooperate in a “tough battle” to contain the coronavirus outbreak in coming weeks as the country prepares to hold the Olympic Games in Tokyo as planned.
“To be frank, we cannot win this battle through the efforts of the government alone,” Abe told a news conference two days after calling for all schools nationwide to be closed for more than a month. The abrupt decision caught teachers, parents and their employers off guard, sparking a fresh wave of criticism.
Abe had already come under fire for his handling of the coronavirus, and Saturday’s news conference was his first since the outbreak.
“I have decided we must make all efforts in the next one or two weeks to prevent the spread” of the virus, he said, while expressing confidence this was possible.
Abe said Japan would go ahead with both the Summer Olympics and a spring visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping, but added he would not hesitate to expand immigration curbs if needed.
Abe, who returned to office in 2012 and is now Japan’s longest-serving premier, has made hosting the Tokyo Olympics a top priority of his tenure. Officials have repeatedly denied that they are considering postponing or canceling the Games.
Japan has seen more than 940 cases of infection of the virus, including 705 from the British-registered Diamond Princess cruise liner, which was quarantined near Tokyo this month, according to the public broadcaster, NHK. There have been 11 fatalities, including six from the cruise ship, Japan’s handling of which drew harsh criticism overseas and at home.
Abe acknowledged the burden that parents would face due to the school closures and said the government would create a fund to subsidize workers who had to take time off work to care for their children.
He said measures, using 270 billion yen ($2.50 billion) in budget reserves, including steps for smaller firms, would be coming in the next 10 days.
The government was also closely watching the global economy and would take fiscal steps as necessary to counter the economic impact of the spreading virus.
Abe also urged consumers to avoid rushing to buy up toilet paper, dismissing rumors of a shortage that have emptied store shelves of the product in recent days.
He promised to boost Japan’s capacity to test for the coronavirus, following reports some people were turned away despite doctors’ recommendations and suspicions that authorities were under-testing to keep contagion numbers low.
Hokkaido, a popular destination for foreign tourists, on Friday declared a state of emergency and urged its population of about 5 million people, including the capital Sapporo - the venue for the Olympics marathon - to stay home this weekend.
“The impact of the state of emergency could be big,” said Yukihiro Watanabe, 57, owner of a wine bar in Otaru city, north of Sapporo, who decided to close his shop at the weekend.
Despite Abe’s appeal - broadcast nationwide on TV - #Abeyamero, meaning “Abe, quit!”, was still trending on Twitter. “We need new leadership,” said one tweet.
Reporting by Junko Fujita, Chang-Ran Kim, Elaine Lies; Writing by William Mallard and Linda Sieg; Editing by Ed Davies and Louise Heavens
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