Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said on Monday that he was considering declaring a state of emergency in the greater Tokyo area over a “very severe” third wave of COVID-19 infections, casting fresh doubt over whether Japan can push ahead with the Olympics and keep economic damage to a minimum.
Japan saw a record 4,520 new cases on December 31, prompting the capital, Tokyo, and three neighbouring prefectures to seek an emergency declaration from the national government.
There were 3,158 new cases on Sunday, according to public broadcaster NHK; Tokyo and its surrounding areas accounted for about half of them. Most Japanese are wearing masks, but shopping districts and shrines, popular places for the year-end and the New Year, have been packed.
“Even during the three days of the New Year’s holidays, cases didn’t go down in the greater Tokyo area,” Suga told reporters. “The national government will consider issuing a state of emergency.”
The Japanese leader has previously resisted any such drastic steps despite criticism that the government was acting too slowly. When asked to explain the change of heart, he said on Monday that he realised a “stronger message was necessary”.
Suga did not say when the government would make a decision, or what restrictions would follow.
In the absence of specifics, hundreds of thousands of people took to Twitter to express 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.
That task has been made more difficult by the discovery last month of a new, highly infectious variant of the coronavirus. That prompted Japan to temporarily ban non-resident foreign nationals from entering the country.
Still, Suga repeated the government’s pledge to continue preparations for the Games, adding the country would aim to start vaccinating residents by the end of February.
“Initially, we wish to start vaccination of medical workers, the elderly and those who work at elderly care facilities,” he said, adding: “I will also take the lead in getting vaccinated.”
Japan imposed a first state of emergency in early April, allowing local governors to call on businesses to close and to request people to stay at home. The measure carries no penalties for non-compliance, but the requests were widely observed this spring.
Suga told reporters the ruling party will push for a legal change when parliament reconvenes later this month, to allow penalties for violations.
He repeated, however, that many of the new cases with unknown origins were likely linked to restaurants, and that the government’s latest request for eateries in the Tokyo area to close at 8pm – rather than 10pm – should be effective.
A popular subsidised travel programme that was paused for two weeks through January 11 would also stay on hold during a state of emergency, the prime minister said.