Japan is considering declaring a state of emergency for the Greater Tokyo metropolitan area as coronavirus cases climb, casting fresh doubt over whether it can push ahead with the Olympics and keep economic damage to a minimum.
Citing government sources, the local Kyodo News reported that preparations were being made for a state of emergency that would take effect on Jan. 9 and last about a month.
Tokyo and the three surrounding prefectures may separately ask residents to refrain from non-essential, non-urgent outings from Friday to the end of the month, public broadcaster NHK reported.
Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura, who is in charge of coronavirus countermeasures, said on Monday that the government would aim to make a decision “as soon as possible” after hearing what experts had to say.
An emergency declaration would mark a reversal for Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who has resisted any such drastic steps despite criticism that the government was acting too slowly.
Japan saw a record 4,520 new cases on Dec. 31, prompting the capital, Tokyo, and three neighbouring prefectures to seek an emergency declaration from the national government.
“Even during the three days of the New Year’s holidays, cases didn’t go down in the greater Tokyo area,” Suga told a news conference.
“We felt that a stronger message was needed,” he added, when asked to explain the change of heart on a potential emergency declaration.
Suga did not say when the government would make a decision, or what restrictions would follow. The first state of emergency, declared last spring, lasted more than a month, shutting down schools and non-essential businesses.
Since the start of the pandemic, Japan has recorded more than 245,000 cases and about 3,600 deaths.
Although the figures pale in comparison to those of many parts of Europe and the Americas, Suga has the challenge of hosting the Olympics in Tokyo this summer after the pandemic caused the Games’ first-ever delay in 2020.
That task has been made more difficult by the discovery last month of a new, highly infectious variant of the coronavirus. That prompted Japan to temporarily ban non-resident foreign nationals from entering the country.
Still, Suga repeated the government’s pledge to continue preparations for the Games, adding the country would aim to start vaccinating residents by the end of February.