Healthcare & Pharmaceuticals

Japan weighs state of emergency in Tokyo area as COVID cases surge

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Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga holds a New Year's press conference at his official residence in Tokyo on January 4, 2021. Yoshikazu Tsuno/Pool via REUTERS

TOKYO, Jan 5 (Reuters) - Public health experts advising Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga called on Tuesday for the swift imposition of a state of emergency in the Tokyo area as daily COVID-19 cases hit a record and some citizens accused the government of dragging its feet.

The government's top spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, said a decision would likely come on Thursday on whether to impose the second state of emergency since the start of the pandemic.

Japanese media said it would take effect by Friday and last about a month. The government is anxious about the economic impact of another state of emergency as it prepares to host the Olympics in the summer.

"There is a risk of a nationwide and rapid spread of infections taking place if the infection situation in Tokyo and surrounding regions does not subside," said Shigeru Omi, head of the panel of public health experts advising Suga. read more

New cases in Tokyo surged to 1,278 on Tuesday, the second highest daily total since the pandemic began, with the national daily tally reaching a record 4,907, public broadcaster NHK reported.

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 restaurants must close by that time.

But measures are likely to be far less sweeping than they were during last year's roughly month-long state of emergency, during which schools and none-essential businesses shut down, as the government seeks to keep economic damage to a minimum.

A second lockdown in and around Japan's capital could cause the economy to contract in the first quarter of this year, analysts said. read more

Education Minister Koichi Hagiuda said the government wouldn't seek to close all schools, leaving that decision to local authorities.

Senior ruling party lawmaker Hiroshige Seko said the government should declare the state of emergency for a month and later extend it if needed.

Suga said on Monday that "limited, concentrated measures" would be most effective, but details remained unclear, including whether sports venues, theatres and cinemas would close.

A lack of legal teeth to enforce measures means they must be couched as "requests", although a bill may be submitted later this year to rectify this.

FRUSTRATION

Frustration reigned on social media, with many questioning the piecemeal measures, especially as the country still plans to host the Olympics, postponed from 2020 by the pandemic but set to open in under 200 days.

"Do you really think you can extinguish a fire by leaving it until it's big and then just splashing it with water from a bucket?" wrote user Kei Koike.

Suga's initial political honeymoon after taking up his post last September has ended, his support rating battered by criticism of his response to the virus and his decision to attend a group steak dinner in defiance of his own calls for caution.

He has also drawn criticism for his initial reluctance to pause a domestic travel subsidy programme.

"They asked us to stay home and promoted travel, they ask us to eat in small groups and promote restaurants. Their deeds are the exact opposite of their words," wrote another Twitter user, Jinrui Minakyou.

Since the start of the pandemic, Japan has recorded more than 245,000 cases and about 3,600 deaths - far fewer than many other countries. But the numbers have been climbing rapidly.

Though Suga has pledged to have enough vaccine supply for the nation's population of 126 million, Japan has yet to approve any for use and only aims to begin inoculations by the end of February.

Pfizer Inc (PFE.N) last month became the first drugmaker to apply for Japanese approval of its COVID-19 vaccine candidate. Japan has arranged to buy 120 million doses, or enough to inoculate 60 million people.

But when those shots will be available remains unclear, as Pfizer has encountered production and roll-out snags in other parts of the world where its vaccine has already been approved for use.

Reporting by Chang-ran Kim; Writing by Elaine Lies; Editing by Tom Hogue

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