Japan proposed on Thursday expanding emergency restrictions to eight more prefectures to fight a surge in COVID-19 cases, a cabinet minister said, as worries grow about strains on the nation’s medical system in Olympics host Tokyo and elsewhere.
Coronavirus infections are surging at an unprecedented pace as new cases hit record highs in Tokyo, overshadowing the July 23-Aug. 8 Olympics and fueling doubts over Prime Minister Yasuhide Suga’s handling of the pandemic.
Tokyo reported a record 4,166 new cases on Wednesday while nationwide new cases topped 14,000.
“New infections are rising at an unprecedently fast pace,” Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura told a panel of experts at which he made the new proposal. The panel was expected to sign off on the new steps before official government approval.
“The situation on the ground (at hospitals) is extremely severe,” Nishimura said, noting that clusters of infections were emerging at department stores, barber and beauty shops, and cram schools, unlike in previous waves of the pandemic.
Six prefectures including Olympic host city Tokyo are already under full states of emergency to last through Aug. 31 while another five are under less strict “quasi-emergency” directives. The latest proposed steps mean that more than 70% of the population will be under some restrictions.
But experts question whether the steps, which unlike in other countries with strict lockdowns are mostly voluntary, will have much impact as the highly transmissible Delta variant spreads and people have grown weary of staying home.
The proposed expansion follows a sharp backlash against Suga’s plan to limit hospitalisation of COVID-19 patients to those who are seriously ill and those at risk of becoming so, while others isolate at home.
The shift in policy is intended to address a hospital bed crunch, but critics say it will lead to an increase in deaths.
In response to calls from within and outside his ruling coalition to reverse the policy, 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 slid to record lows ahead of a ruling party leadership race and general election later this year.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)