Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his deputy will no longer attend meetings together to cut exposure to the coronavirus, as pressure for a lockdown builds and a minister warned the country’s containment strategy was stretched to the limit.
The decision comes as Japan’s Foreign Ministry announced that foreign nationals from the United States, China and South Korea, as well as most of Europe, will be banned from entering the country.
Abe told cabinet members on Tuesday that his second-in-command, Taro Aso, would no longer be present at any meeting the prime minister attends, a government spokesman said, in a move to guard the leadership against infection that could hamper Japan’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.
Last week British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was obliged to switch to running the country from isolation after testing positive for the virus.
Abe’s step came as Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura said Japan was not yet in a situation to declare a state of emergency, triggering a potential lockdown, but that the situation was precarious.
“We’re just barely holding it together,” Nishimura told reporters on Tuesday. “If we loosen our grip even a little, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a sudden surge (in cases).”
Speculation that a lockdown may come soon has been intense, fuelled by rising numbers of domestic cases.
A centre for disabled people in Chiba prefecture, east of Tokyo, found seven more infections on Tuesday, pushing the national total past 2,000.
A total of 59 deaths have been recorded, according to national broadcaster NHK.
Only last Tuesday, the Japanese government and International Olympic Committee succumbed to intense pressure from athletes and sporting bodies around the world to delay Tokyo’s 2020 Summer Games for a year because of the global outbreak.
But any lockdown in Japan would look different from mandatory measures in some parts of Europe and the United States. By law, local authorities are only permitted to issue requests for people to stay at home, which are not binding.
Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike has requested citizens in the capital to stay indoors, while her counterpart in Osaka, Japan’s second-biggest city told reporters on Monday he thought the national government should declare a state of emergency, according to local media.
A director of the country’s top organisation of doctors has said the government should declare a state of emergency before it is too late.
Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said on Tuesday Japan is urging its citizens not to travel to 73 countries and regions – a third of all countries in the world including the United States, Canada, China, South Korea and Britain.
Citizens from the US, China, South Korea, as well as most of Europe will also be banned from entering Japan.
Elsewhere Abe said in a call with World Health Organization (WHO) Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Monday evening that development of medicines and vaccines would be crucial to contain the outbreak.
Abe said Japan intends to promote clinical research on an anti-flu medicine called Favipiravir with other countries as a treatment for the virus.
The drug, also known as Avigan, was developed by a Japanese company.