Japan is considering declaring a state of emergency for the Greater Tokyo metropolitan area as coronavirus cases rise, raising new questions about whether it can go ahead with the Olympics and keep the economic damage to a minimum.
Citing government sources, local Kyodo News reported that preparations were being made for a state of emergency that would take effect on January 9 and last for about a month.
Tokyo and the three surrounding prefectures can separately ask residents to refrain from non-essential and non-urgent departures from Friday until the end of the month, public broadcaster NHK reported.
Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura, who is in charge of countermeasures against the coronavirus, said Monday that the government will aim to make a decision “as soon as possible” after hearing what experts have to say.
An emergency declaration would mark a setback for Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who has resisted such drastic measures despite criticism that the government was acting too slowly.
Japan saw a record 4,520 new cases on December 31, prompting the capital Tokyo and three neighboring prefectures to request an emergency declaration from the national government.
“Even during the three days of the New Year holidays, the cases did not drop in the Tokyo metropolitan area,” Suga said at a news conference.
“We felt a stronger message was needed,” he added, when asked to explain the change of mind in a possible 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, closing schools and nonessential businesses.
Since the start of the pandemic, Japan has recorded more than 245,000 cases and about 3,600 deaths.
Although the numbers pale in comparison to those in many parts of Europe and America, Suga is challenged to host the Olympics in Tokyo this summer after the pandemic caused the Games’ first delay in 2020.
That task has been made more difficult with the discovery last month of a highly infectious new variant of the coronavirus. That led Japan to temporarily ban nonresident foreign nationals from entering the country.
Still, Suga reiterated the government’s promise to continue preparations for the Games, adding that the country would aim to begin vaccinating residents in late February.