Japan is preparing to expand emergency restrictions to eight more prefectures to fight a surge in COVID-19 cases, as worries grow about strains on the medical system in Tokyo as it hosts the Olympics.
The planned move comes on Thursday as coronavirus infections surged at an unprecedented pace, overshadowing the Summer Games and driving doubts about Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s handling of the pandemic.
On Wednesday, Tokyo reported a record 4,166 new cases, while nationwide new cases topped 14,000.
“New infections are rising at an unprecedently fast pace,” Economic Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura told a panel of experts reviewing the proposal for expanded restrictions. “Not just in the national capital region, but starting with the Kansai region and northern Kanto region, the number of new infections has surged across the whole country at levels we have never seen before.”
“The situation on the ground is extremely severe,” he said, adding: “We are seeing clusters where we’d seldom seen them before, such as at department stores, hairdressers and cram schools.”
The latest steps, to take effect from Sunday, mean more than 70 percent of Japan’s population will be under some restrictions. Already, six prefectures including Tokyo are under full states of emergency, which will remain in place until August 31, while a further five are under less strict “quasi-emergency” directives.
But experts question whether the steps, which are mostly voluntary, will have much effect as people have grown weary of staying home even as the highly transmissible Delta variant spreads.
Since the beginning of this month, the Delta variant has made up roughly 90 percent of new cases in the Kanto region and 60 percent in the Kansai region, according to the National Institute for Infectious Diseases.
The decision to extend restrictions follows a sharp backlash against Suga’s plan for COVID-19 patients to isolate at home with only those who are seriously ill or at risk of becoming so, admitted to hospital.
The shift in policy is intended to address a shortage of hospital beds but critics say it will lead to an increase in deaths.
Opposition legislators criticised the policy in parliament on Wednesday, with Akira Nagatsuma, a former health minister and the deputy leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party, calling it a “man-made disaster”.
Legislators allied with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party have also called on Suga to reverse the policy.
“I want the government to reconsider it, including the possibility of withdrawal,” said Michiyo Takagi, the deputy policy chief of the Komeito party, the junior coalition partner of the LDP. “It is impossible to treat moderately ill patients who need ventilators at home.”
In response to the criticism, Suga told reporters on Wednesday that the change was aimed at regions with a surge in COVID-19 cases, such as Tokyo, and was not nationally uniform. He promised to explain the change and seek public understanding.
But the backlash is a blow to Suga, whose support rates have already slumped to record lows ahead of a ruling party leadership race and general election later this year.
Polls have shown many Japanese people were opposed to holding the Olympics while the country struggled to contain the pandemic and vaccinate the population.
Olympic ‘bubble’ system
Suga and Olympics organisers have said there is no link between the spike in cases and the Games, which began on July 23 and will end on August 8.
At least 270 people accredited to the Games have tested positive since July 1 but experts say there appears to have been no cross-transmission as the “bubble system” created to separate those at the sporting event and residents of the Japanese capital was holding up well.
Still, some say hosting the Games may have affected public sentiment and eroded the effect of government requests for people to stay home.
“I don’t think that the infections [of people involved in the games] under the ‘bubble system’ are directly related to the rapid spread of infections at all,” Shigeru Omi, the Japanese government’s top medical adviser, told parliament. “But I think that the fact that the Olympics are being held has had an impact on people’s awareness.”
“There is also the fact that the message from political leaders was not united, strong and clear,” he added.
Japan has reported a total of 971,904 infections and 15,246 deaths to date.