Tokyo eyes tighter virus restrictions as cases rebound

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government plans to ask for a national government decision to implement COVID-19 pre-emergency measures in the capital as coronavirus cases there hit a two-month high, Gov. Yuriko Koike suggested Wednesday.

The metropolitan government is slated to make a final decision on the matter after hearing related experts’ opinions at a coronavirus monitoring meeting Thursday.

The capital recorded 555 cases on Wednesday, exceeding 500 for the first time in about two months in Tokyo, which exited Japan’s second coronavirus state of emergency a half month ago.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga told reporters that the central government will determine whether to place Tokyo in the pre-emergency stage “after listening to opinions from local governments and experts, taking into account the number of new infection cases and the hospital bed situation.”

“We should recognize that we’re in a severe situation,” Koike told metropolitan government officials. “I believe we should begin preparations to ask the national government for pre-emergency measures.”

Later, she told reporters that the daily number of new coronavirus cases in the capital is on an uptrend.

“Expecting the worst, we are working to secure hospital beds and accommodation facilities (for COVID-19 patients), and I think we should now enter the pre-emergency stage,” Koike said.

The extra steps, already imposed on the Osaka area, are broadly similar to the emergency declaration, itself much less strict than lockdowns seen in European capitals. Bars and restaurants in urban areas would likely to be asked to close early, and may face the threat of fines for noncompliance.

The national government could decide to impose the measures as early as Friday if requested, the Sankei newspaper reported, and could also expand them to include Okinawa, Kyoto and other areas where cases are growing.

Tokyo had previously coordinated its response to the pandemic with its neighboring prefectures. Koike indicated, however, that the metropolitan government will consider a request for pre-emergency measures by itself this time.

She also mentioned a need to curb people’s movements, especially travel to and from the Kansai region, where coronavirus variants are spreading.

Osaka, the current center of the pandemic in Japan, has seen cases hit record highs since lifting its state of emergency in February. The prefecture has a population just over half that of Tokyo’s, but saw 878 infections on Wednesday, topping those in the capital for almost two weeks. Experts fear that the sudden surge seen in Osaka could be repeated in Tokyo.

“Tokyo could go the way of Osaka,” Shigeru Omi, the head of a panel of experts advising the government, said in parliament on Monday. “It takes a week or two after the lifting of the state of emergency for this impact to appear.”

A call for pre-emergency steps is also growing in some other areas as well. Kyoto Gov. Takatoshi Nishiwaki said that he is considering asking for the pre-emergency measures in his prefecture, though not immediately.

Nishiwaki told reporters that he will make such a request “without hesitation” when necessary, adding that infections in the prefecture are spreading rapidly.

The slow pace of vaccine rollout is adding to concerns. Japan is set to begin vaccinating people age 65 and over starting Monday, but supply constraints mean mass inoculations won’t begin in earnest until May. Less than 1% of the population have received just one dose of vaccine.

Japan imposed the state of emergency in January, initially on Tokyo before expanding to other areas. Despite lacking the ability to enforce lockdowns, the steps mostly targeting bars and restaurants were successful in reducing new infections. But the pace of decline slowed, with new cases hitting a floor of around 300 in Tokyo in early March, even before the emergency was lifted.

While the raw numbers pale in comparison to other metropolitan areas worldwide struggling with the pandemic, the renewed surge is a concern for a country preparing to host the Olympics in just over 100 days. Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura canceled the Olympic Torch Relay in the prefecture, which was set to be held April 13 and 14.

The surge in cases will likely have political implications as well. The Osaka governor came under fire on social media as case numbers jumped, and a broader surge would probably further undermine support for Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who faces an election by October.

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