Japan may enter a state of emergency this week as the country grapples with soaring coronavirus cases, a number of which have been linked to a new, potentially more infectious variant.
Speaking at a New Year press conference Monday, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said an emergency declaration was being considered, and would apply to Tokyo and the three neighboring prefectures of Chiba, Saitama and Kanagawa. The governors of all four regions have all urged Suga to do so already, as cases rise.
“lf necessary, we won’t hesitate to dispatch the medical staff from Self Defense Force,” Suga added, saying the government will support medical facilities to ensure they are not overwhelmed.
Suga did not say when the government would make a decision, or what restrictions could be enacted. Japan’s first state of emergency, declared last spring, relatively early in the pandemic, lasted more than a month, and saw schools and non-essential businesses closed.
Japanese authorities are currently limited in their powers to punish those who breach restrictions, even in a state of emergency, something Suga’s government is reportedly planning to change to enable local governments to force compliance.
The Prime Minister, who took power last September after the resignation of Shinzo Abe, has seen his approval rating plummet in recent weeks, in part due to his handling of the pandemic.
On Sunday, Japan recorded 3,150 new cases, and 51 deaths, bringing the national total to 244,559, with over 3,612 fatalities. The greater Tokyo region has been among the worst hit, with 816 new cases Sunday after last Thursday recording a new single-day record of 1,337.
Japan confirmed its first cases of the new, potentially more infectious UK coronavirus variant last week, prompting the government to ban all foreign travelers from entering the country.
Cases throughout the country have been on the rise recent weeks thanks in part to cold winter weather and social distancing fatigue.
Japan was one of the first countries hit by the pandemic, but the government was able to keep cases at bay by enacting stringent border controls, investing efforts in contact tracing and pushing its citizens to practice social distancing. The efforts had been largely successful, with Japan able to avoid the type of strict lockdowns enacted in other parts of the world.
Japanese health officials have continuously urged citizens to reduce their daily activities, remain vigilant and only dine out in small numbers, but that no longer appears to be enough to stop the pandemic from spreading.
“Japan’s response is too slow and confusing, which reflects the lack of leadership and strategy. On one hand they encouraged domestic travel and eating out, on the other they just asked people to take caution,” said Kenji Shibuya, director of the Institute for Population Health at King’s College London. “The government is basically asking people voluntarily to behave properly, but does not do more than that.”
Suga dismissed calls to declare a state of emergency in November, citing advice from an advisory panel that hospitals were still relatively empty. However, Japan’s total case count has more than doubled since then.
Japanese officials are believed to be wary of introducing a lockdown or other emergency measures for fear of harming the economy. The country is also once again facing difficult decisions around the OIympics, which were due to take place last summer but were eventually postponed as the pandemic spread around the world.
The Tokyo Games are scheduled to be held this summer from July 23 to August 8, according to the International Olympic Committee, with pared-back opening and closing ceremonies in keeping with an “overall simplification of the Games.”
Whether and how many foreign spectators will be able to attend the Olympics is due to be sorted out in Spring.
A successful Olympics will likely be dependent on how fast vaccination schemes can be rolled out worldwide, not least of which in Japan itself. Inoculation programs are not due to begin in Japan until late February, far behind some other countries. At the press conference Monday, Suga said frontline medical workers and the elderly would be the first groups to receive the vaccinations, adding the government had moved forward the timeline owing to the latest outbreak.
However, Japanese authorities will also have to deal with what is expected to be widespread antipathy towards getting the shot: Japan ranks “among the countries with the lowest vaccine confidence in the world,” according to a recent study by The Lancet.
Suga has promised to “take the initiative” in vaccination, and said Monday that a successful Olympics would serve as “proof that human beings have overcome the coronavirus.”
Junko Ogura reported from Tokyo, Japan, James Griffiths reported from Hong Kong. CNN’s Joshua Berlinger and Selina Wang contributed reporting.