The Japanese government decided Thursday to extend the COVID-19 state of emergency again for Tokyo and many other areas as hospitals remain stretched despite a falling number of infections, while seeking a road map for easing restrictions when most of the population is vaccinated.
The state of emergency covering 21 of Japan’s 47 prefectures had been slated to end Sunday but will remain in place through Sept. 30 for 19 prefectures, including Hokkaido, Aichi, Osaka and Fukuoka.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga will explain the decision at a press conference later in the day, his first since abruptly announcing his resignation last week amid mounting criticism over his government’s coronavirus response.
As Suga’s term as the president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party expires on Sept. 30, the LDP is preparing to hold a presidential election on Sept. 29 to pick its next president, who will also become the next prime minister.
Yasutoshi Nishimura, minister in charge of Japan’s coronavirus response, told a meeting of experts that the medical systems in the designated areas are still in a “severe situation” and stressed the need to implement thorough anti-virus measures as there could be an influx of travelers on the national holidays in late September.
Infections nationwide surged to more than 25,000 a day in mid-August but have since fallen by about half, although hospitals continue to struggle to deal with the large number of patients with serious symptoms of COVID-19.
A panel of experts advising the government on its COVID-19 response said Wednesday the state of emergency should only be lifted if hospital bed occupancy rates fall below 50 percent and patients with severe to moderate symptoms are on a downward trend.
Nishimura said the government will review its anti-virus measures for international travelers in response to a request by the Japan Business Federation, Japan’s largest business lobby. The government is considering shortening its quarantine period for people entering Japan to 10 days from 14 days, according to a person familiar with the matter.
He also said the government is making final arrangements to present a plan for easing restrictions once the majority of people here are vaccinated.
The final draft of the plan, with the government eyeing implementation from around November, includes allowing people to travel across prefectural borders and taking part in large events such as concerts and sports games if they have been fully vaccinated or provide negative test results.
At present, people in areas under a state of emergency are asked by the government to refrain from traveling across prefectural borders or staging large events with more than 5,000 spectators.
According to the plan, restaurants will also be no longer asked to forgo selling alcohol as long as they are certified to have measures in place to prevent infections and people will be allowed to gather in larger groups at restaurants.
Under the state of emergency, which has been in place in Tokyo since July 12 and extended twice, people are being urged to avoid crowded areas while restaurants are asked to refrain from serving alcohol and to close by 8 p.m.
About 49 percent of Japan’s population, or roughly 62 million people, have received two shots of the vaccine, according to the latest government data. Suga has promised that everyone eligible and willing to receive a vaccination will do so sometime between October and November.
A general election is also expected to be held around that time as the lower house members’ term runs out on Oct. 21.
The government has apparently decided that this would be the right time to ease restrictions that have hurt businesses, especially in the food services and tourism sectors, though health experts continue to voice concerns over the highly contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus.
Among the 21 prefectures currently under the state of emergency, Miyagi and Okayama will shift to a quasi-state of emergency, which allows governors to impose measures on specific cities rather than their entire prefectures.