Japanese government considers state of emergency for Tokyo area

TOKYO (Reuters) - The Japanese government said on Monday it was considering declaring a state of emergency in and around Tokyo as coronavirus cases climb, casting fresh doubt over whether it can push ahead with the summer Olympics and keep economic damage to a minimum.

Citing government sources, Kyodo News reported that preparations were being made for a state of emergency that would take effect by Friday and last about a month.

Tokyo and the three surrounding prefectures, which have requested an emergency declaration, asked residents to refrain from non-essential, non-urgent outings after 8 p.m. from Friday until at least the end of the month, and said eateries must close by that time.

Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura, in charge of coronavirus countermeasures, said the government would make a decision on an emergency “as soon as possible” after listening to experts.

Japan registered a record 4,520 new cases on Dec. 31, about half in and around Tokyo, but Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has resisted demands for tougher action.

Asked to explain the potential change of heart, he told a news conference: “Even during the three days of the New Year’s holidays, cases didn’t go down in the greater Tokyo area ... We felt that a stronger message was needed.”

Suga did not say when the government would decide, or what restrictions would follow. A state of emergency last spring lasted more than a month, shutting down schools and non-essential businesses.

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In the absence of specifics, hundreds of thousands of Twitter posts expressed dismay and confusion.

“This morning, the news said it’s 200 days till the Olympics, and in the afternoon, that there could be another state of emergency. What’s going on?” tweeted user Mii Mama.

Since the start of the pandemic, Japan has recorded more than 245,000 cases and about 3,600 deaths.

Although the figures pale in comparison to those of many parts of Europe and the Americas, Suga has the challenge of hosting the Olympics in Tokyo this summer after the pandemic caused the Games’ first-ever delay in 2020.

Still, Suga repeated a pledge to continue preparations for the Games said a vaccination programme should begin by the end of February.

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Japan has until now relied mostly on voluntary closings rather than the rigid lockdowns seen elsewhere, but Suga said a bill would be submitted to parliament to give state-of-emergency restrictions more teeth, including penalties.

He said many new cases with unknown origins were likely to be linked to restaurants, and that cutting their hours should help.

Later he said on television news that the government would consider raising the maximum compensation for businesses that agree to shorter hours from the current 20,000 yen ($195) a day.

Toshihiro Nagahama, an economist at Dai-ichi Life Research Institute, estimated that a one-month suspension of non-urgent consumer spending in greater Tokyo would slash gross domestic product by 2.8 trillion yen ($27 billion), or an annualised 0.5%, costing around 147,000 jobs.

($1 = 102.9800 yen)

Reporting by Chang-Ran Kim, Tetsushi Kajimoto, Elaine Lies, Daniel Leussink, Kiyoshi Takenaka and Izumi Nakagawa; Writing by Chang-Ran Kim; Editing by Gerry Doyle and Kevin Liffey