Covid-19: Japan considers state of emergency amid rising cases

Worries grow over rescheduled Olympic games due to take place in July

Japan does not expect to start Covid-19 vaccinations until the end of February, said Yoshihide Suga, as he warned that a state of emergency could soon be declared in Tokyo.

Speaking at his new year press conference, the Japanese prime minister said the government needed to send a “stronger message” in the capital, where people continued to dine out over the new year holiday.

Mr Suga’s comments highlight Japan’s struggle to control the latest wave of coronavirus, with cases running at record levels of 3,000 to 4,000 a day nationwide, of which about 1,000 are in Tokyo.

Rising infections in the capital and slow progress on vaccinations could pose a renewed threat to the Tokyo Olympics, which are scheduled to start in just 200 days.

“Experts say that many of the untraceable Covid cases are due to eating out, so our most effective response is to ask people to refrain from meeting in the evening, and to ask restaurants to shorten their opening hours,” Mr Suga said.

Measures to slow the outbreak have been effective in Hokkaido and Osaka, said Mr Suga, but less so in Tokyo. Hospital systems in some parts of the country are struggling with either the volume of serious cases or outbreaks among medical staff.

The government will probably ask residents in the Tokyo area to avoid going out after 8pm and restaurants to close by that time. Unlike during a state of emergency last spring, however, schools are expected to stay open.

Freedom of movement

Japan has a constitutional right of freedom of movement, so the government cannot declare a compulsory lockdown, but the public largely complied with official requests last year. A new law will allow the government to penalise businesses that do not close under its guidance.

After delaying as long as possible, Mr Suga suspended Japan’s “Go To” campaign of subsidies for domestic travel over the new year holiday. In his press conference, he said it would be hard to restart the campaign if the government had to declare a state of emergency.

The prime minister said US pharmaceutical companies had intended to submit clinical trial data for Covid-19 vaccines to Japanese regulators in the middle of February. But following a request by the government, that date was brought forward to the end of January.

“Based on an examination of their safety and efficacy, we hope to start administering approved vaccines by the end of February,” said Mr Suga.

Medical staff would receive the vaccine first, followed by the elderly. Mr Suga said he would receive a vaccine as well.

Japan has had a sometimes difficult past relationship with vaccines and the government is nervous about public acceptance. The vaccine against the human papillomavirus is rarely given in the country after a health scare erupted almost a decade ago.

Tokyo has agreed to buy several of the leading Covid-19 vaccines, including jabs from BioNTech/Pfizer, Oxford/AstraZeneca and Moderna. It plans to offer the vaccine for free to its entire population. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021