Japan is hoping that a short blast of tough coronavirus measures will halt a recent surge in coronavirus cases, with the prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, poised to announce a targeted state of emergency for Tokyo, Osaka and two other prefectures, just three months before the Tokyo Olympics.
Suga has come under pressure to take action after a sharp rise in infections in the capital, and evidence that new variants of the virus are driving serious outbreaks in Osaka and the two neighbouring prefectures of Hyogo and Kyoto.
Japan’s third state of emergency since the start of the pandemic will coincide with Golden Week – several days of consecutive holidays during which there is normally a huge increase in domestic travel.
The measures will go into effect in the four areas – covering about a quarter of Japan’s population and a third of its economy – from Sunday until at least 11 May, media reports said.
While Japanese authorities are unable to impose European-style lockdowns, bars and restaurants will be asked to close, while large-scale events, such as football and baseball matches, will be held behind closed doors.
Department stores and shopping malls will also be asked to close – although shops selling essential items will stay open – as well as theme parks, theatres and museums. Bus and train services will be reduced during public holidays and weekends, the Nikkei business newspaper reported.
Businesses that comply are eligible for compensation, while fines will be issued to violators.
“We have a strong sense of crisis,” Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister in charge of Japan’s virus response, said Friday. Suga was due to formally announce the measures at a press conference in the evening.
Japan has had a comparatively small Covid-19 outbreak, with 9,800 deaths and just over half a million cases, despite the absence of the strict lockdowns seen in other countries.
But the emergence of the UK and other variants – which account for about 80% of cases in Osaka and Hyogo – and pressure on health services in some areas appear to have forced Suga’s hand.
Tokyo recorded 861 new infections on Thursday – numbers not seen since January – while Osaka reported 1,167 cases, slightly down from a record number a day earlier.
Earlier this week, Suga insisted the emergency measures would not affect preparations for the Tokyo Games.
Yet the virus has already caused disruption to the torch relay, which had to take place in an empty park in Osaka last week and will be kept off public roads in Okinawa prefecture next month. On Thursday, the governor of Ehime prefecture broke down in tears as he explained his decision not to allow the relay to pass through the local city of Matsuyama.
In a move that could fuel doubts about the Olympics, the Tokyo Motor Show was cancelled for the first time in its history, with organisers citing Covid-19 concerns. The biennial event was due to take place in the autumn, several weeks after the Games.
The new emergency measures could be lifted days before the president of the International Olympic Committee [IOC], Thomas Bach, is due to arrive in Japan to encourage organisers, who have repeatedly promised to put on a “safe and secure” event.
Bach, who has insisted that the delayed Games cannot be postponed a second time, sparked anger this week when he said the state of emergency was a “preemptive measure” and “not related” to the Olympics.
“How to manage public health is something that Japan should decide,” Yuichiro Tamaki, an opposition party leader, said, according to the Asahi Shimbun. “We don’t need President Bach to wade in.”
The Japanese public is firmly opposed to holding the Games this summer, according to a recent poll by the Kyodo news agency, in which a combined 72% of respondents said they should either be cancelled or postponed again.
The situation in Osaka is causing particular alarm among health experts. Almost all of the prefecture’s beds for seriously ill Covid-19 patients are full, and dozens of nurses will be sent from other parts of the country to help deal with the rise in hospital admissions.
Japan’s slow vaccination rollout has left it with little choice other than to request restrictions on business operations and people’s movements, with a focus on bars and restaurants, described by the government’s top spokesman, Katsunobu Kato, as “key points” of infection.
Since Japan’s vaccine rollout began in mid-February, about 1.5 million people – mainly frontline medical workers – have received one dose, and 827,000 have been fully vaccinated.
The country’s vaccine tsar, Taro Kono, has said vaccinations would speed up in the coming weeks with the arrival of more shipments of Pfizer doses, the only vaccine to have been approved so far in Japan.
The risks associated with night-time entertainment were underlined when bureaucrats at the health ministry tested positive for Covid-19 after eating and drinking late into the night at a Tokyo restaurant last month.
In all, 27 ministry officials, including those who did not attend the party, have been diagnosed with the virus, according to Japanese media.