Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has expressed “remorse” for attending a group dinner with celebrity friends in apparent breach of his own government’s coronavirus guidelines, as infection rates in the country continue to surge.
For weeks, Japanese health officials have urged citizens to reduce their daily activities, remain vigilant and only dine out in small numbers to curb a resurgent winter Covid-19 wave that has seen daily case numbers climb to their highest levels since the beginning of the pandemic.
But on Monday, Suga appeared to disregard those guidelines by attending a gathering with seven guests, who were all over the age of 70, at a high-end steak restaurant in Tokyo’s Ginza district.
Addressing reporters at the Prime Minister’s residence on Wednesday, Suga said, “There was sufficient social distance with other participants, but I seriously remorseful for inviting the public skepticism.”
“We have been taking precautions, but the number of infections remains at a high level with 3,000 new infections confirmed in the last weekend. We are taking this very seriously. Experts pointed out the group dining has higher risks,” Suga said.
Tokyo’s Metropolitan government has advised limiting the number of people dining in restaurants to five and urged senior citizens, who are especially vulnerable, to adhere to this guidance.
His attendance at the dinner was criticized by opposition lawmakers. “He should have restrained himself as the infection is spreading. He must act as a role model for the nation,” said Tetsuro Fukuyama, Secretary General of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan.
Speaking to Nippon TV, Suga said that he was late for the dinner and intended to greet the guests and leave, but stayed for about 40 minutes.
Hours before he attended the dinner, Suga announced additional countermeasures intended to help curb the current rise in Covid-19 infections, including a suspension of a government country-wide travel incentive program and financial support for restaurants.
The Go To scheme offered travelers up to 50% discounts on transportation, hotels, restaurants, tourist attractions and shopping, in an effort to encourage domestic travel during the pandemic downturn.
“I decided to take the maximum measure to keep down the infection and alleviate the burden to the medical system, so that everyone in Japan can have a calm new year,” Suga said at the time.
Suga, who was sworn in as Prime Minister in September, inherited significant challenges as the disease caused major disruptions to the local and global economy. A public opinion poll by public broadcaster NHK on Monday, found his support rate at 42%, down 14% from the previous month. Another poll from Mainichi Newspaper on Saturday put Suga’s approval rating at 40%, a 17% drop from the month prior.
Japan, along with its neighbor South Korea, is seeing a rise in Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations as cold winter temperatures set in. Winter was always expected to bring a spike in cases, as cold weather sends people indoors to poorly ventilated spaces – conditions likely to make coronavirus spread more easily.
In Japan, cases have been rising steadily since the start of last month. On November 1, just over 600 cases were reported. Twenty days later there were more than 2,500 daily infections.
The country reported 2,988 Covid-19 cases and 51 deaths on Wednesday, bringing the nationwide total to 187,815.
The number of patients in critical condition and in intensive care remains at its highest level since the beginning of the pandemic at 618 people, up 26 cases from the previous day.
Large urban centers like the capital Tokyo are reporting their highest level of infections and the number of people hospitalized is rising. On Wednesday, Tokyo reported 1,960 patients are under medical care and 69 people are in serious condition in intensive care.
Despite being one of the first countries to be hit by the virus, Japan has largely avoided the type of strict lockdowns seen elsewhere in the world, opting instead for intensive border controls, contact tracing and social distancing, an experiment that has been broadly successful.
But the sheer amount of time citizens have been living under even minor restrictions – East Asia was the first region in the world to deal with the coronavirus, with precautions being enacted as early as January this year – runs the risk of fatigue.
“Please do not get used to the coronavirus,” Japan Medical Association President Toshio Nakagawa said at a briefing last month, as cases started to rise. “Please do not underestimate the coronavirus.”
Neighboring South Korea is also battling its biggest rise in Covid-19 cases and health officials have warned citizens to take restrictions seriously, as the country faces the possibility of entering into its first potential lockdown.