Record COVID-19 cases in Tokyo, heavy snow curtail New Year celebrations in Japan

TOKYO (Reuters) -New coronavirus infections in Japan’s capital hit a record high of 1,337 on Thursday, Tokyo’s Metropolitan Government said, and New Year’s Eve celebrations were curtailed as the country battles a third wave of the pandemic.

Nagoya castle is seen during snowfall in Nagoya, central Japan, in this photo taken by Kyodo December 31, 2020. Kyodo via REUTERS

Nationwide, new cases surpassed 4,000 for the first time, local media said.

Scores of flights were also cancelled as heavy snowfall hit several areas of Japan on Thursday.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has urged people to celebrate New Year quietly and avoid non-essential outings.

Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways cancelled or planned to cancel a total of around 140 flights, public broadcaster NHK reported, adding that bullet train services had been suspended in some parts of the northern Yamagata prefecture.

A 70-year-old man died in the northern Iwate prefecture after he apparently fell into a river while trying to shift snow with a shovel loader machine, NHK said.

Japan has been battling a third wave of COVID-19 infections in recent weeks and on Monday started barring the entry of non-resident foreign nationals after detecting variants of the virus from Britain and South Africa.

Japanese Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura said on Wednesday the government may have to consider declaring a state of emergency if the number the COVID-19 cases grow.

Japan’s Imperial Household Agency has cancelled an annual New Year’s event set for Jan 2, at which Emperor Naruhito and other imperial family members were due to greet well-wishers.

People have been asked to stagger visits to shrines, traditionally popular destinations on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.

In Tokyo, where the governor has warned of a potential explosion in COVID-19 cases, extra train services will be suspended from late Dec. 31 to Jan. 1.

“I want to emphasis again that there is no New Year holidays for the coronavirus. I urge people to spend quiet holidays staying at home with families,” Kyodo news agency quoted Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike as telling reporters on Thursday.

The health ministry confirmed on Thursday six cases of a mutated coronavirus variant in people returning to Japan from Britain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) between Dec. 23 and 26.

About 3,480 people have died in Japan from around 235,700 cases during the pandemic so far.

Reporting by Kaori Kaneko and Elaine Lies; editing by Jane Wardell, Michael Perry and Alex Richardson